• Trusts told to ramp up staff testing
  • Chief executives asked to “personally ensure” labs operate at full capacity
  • Army drafted in to move test samples around to fill capacity

Hospitals have been told they can test as many staff as possible after national leaders abandoned the cap they imposed last week.

In a letter to trust chief executives today, NHS England and Improvement said a cap of 15 per cent of tests being used for NHS staff was lifted. Late last week, acute trusts were told to put aside 15 per cent of their daily tests for NHS key workers who were quarantining at home.

Trusts now have the green light to test as many of their staff as possible — both those working on-site and self-isolating at home — subject to lab capacity. Tests can also be done on people showing covid-19 symptoms with whom NHS staff are self-isolating.

It is not clear if the decision to put on the 15 per cent cap, then to lift it, was made by government or by the NHS nationally. Reports have suggested the government has ordered the NHS to do more, but national NHS sources indicate they had been waiting for government approval.  

NHSE/I said the NHS must do more staff testing as “lab capacity is increasing”, and that it wants to “max-out” all available capacity.

NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson welcomed the decision, saying it was a “good and sensible piece of delegation of decision-making”.

In its letter, NHSE/I asked chief executives of trusts that host an NHS lab doing covid-19 testing to “personally ensure your lab’s capacity is fully used each and every day”.

Using all capacity would mean carrying out more testing for both internal staff and staff from other organisations, such as neighbouring acute or ambulance trusts.

“As soon as this has been implemented, and as extra lab volumes become available, the approach can over the coming days be extended to community, mental health, primary care and social care,” the letter stated.

Hospital chiefs have been urged to ensure “sufficient numbers of staff” are swabbed today and “each successive day” to fill the next day’s lab testing capacity, and asked for “immediate action” to “industrialise” staff swabbing processes.

NHSE/I has also begun a daily stocktake of staff cases swabbed and tests undertaken, which it said will help to “align demand for tests with where current capacity sits”.

Their letter stated some pathology networks — which have been created across the NHS over the last three years — are almost up to “maximum levels” while others have “significant surpluses”.

The army has also been drafted in to help move samples around the country, along with swabs that may be required if they are of a different type used in a trust’s laboratory.

There is currently a shortage of swabs and the chemical reagents needed to carry out the tests, and NHSE/I’s letter said it was “working hard to secure additional reagents… recognising that this remains a key constraint for many labs”.