• Home testing kits could be available imminently, says PHE
  • But tests need first to be evaluated to make sure they work
  • National intensive care capacity not expected to be exceeded, says expert

Members of the public may soon be able to order covid-19 home testing kits, but health officials said they are not yet sure that they work.

Professor Sharon Peacock, director of Public Health England’s national infection service, told the Commons science and technology committee this morning that the tests would be available for order on Amazon and could also be carried out in Boots pharmacies. The health secretary said yesterday that 3.5 million tests had been ordered by the UK government.

However, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty stressed at a press conference this evening — hours later — that the tests need to be evaluated to make sure they worked, and then a decision would be made as to who gets them first.

And apparently pouring cold water on the earlier comments, Professor Whitty said he did not expect home testing kits to be available to order online as soon as next week.

Rapid and widespread availability of home testing would represent a huge shift in ability to tackle covid-19 spread — and in the NHS’s ability to deal with it, as staff could quickly check whether they or their householders are infected.

Intensive care

Meanwhile, a government adviser and expert told the committee that the NHS was expected to have enough intensive care capacity — after a substantial expansion of beds which is underway — to deal with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak

Neil Ferguson, lead author of the Imperial College paper which persuaded the government to initiate the current population lockdown, told MPs today that social distancing measures and efforts by the NHS to increase ICU capacity will mean intensive care “will get very close to capacity but it won’t be breached at a national level”.

The regional impact is less clear.

Professor Ferguson, a member of the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies, told the Commons science and technology committee SAGE was “reasonably confident” that ICU capacity won’t be breached nationally, although he acknowledged that hospitals in covid-19 “hotspots,” such as London, are “already being overwhelmed”.

The more optimistic outlook comes after 13 trust chief executives told an HSJ survey they expect to run out of ICU capacity this week; and as London in particular looks to vastly ramp up intensive capacity, by radically stretching staffing ratios and seeking ventilators.

UK deaths from covid-19 are “unlikely” to be more than 20,000, as previously predicted, but “it could be substantially lower than that,” Professor Ferguson also told the committee.

Professor Ferguson said the government’s measures will turn covid-19 “from a growing epidemic into a declining one” and, if the measures work, demand for intensive care units for covid-19 patients should peak within two-and-a-half to three weeks.

He told the committee: “With this current strategy being adopted now we think that in some areas of the country ICUs will get very close to capacity but it won’t be breached at a national level.

“There are some areas of the country that will be extremely stressed but we are reasonably confident – that’s all we can be at the current time – that at a national level we will be within capacity.”

Professor Ferguson added that transmission of covid-19 is likely to drop by 10 to 20 per cent in the summer.


Meanwhile, the committee was told it was “possible” a vaccine against covid-19 could be ready for mass deployment within six months. Thirty possible covid-19 vaccine candidates are being developed and some are already in clinical trials.

Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford, said he believed it is “possible” for the vaccine to be ready for mass deployment against coronavirus in six months but “it needs a lot of things to fall into place”.

Updated at 2:35pm on 25 March to include update on home testing kits, and later to reflect Professor Chris Whitty’s later comments.