Coronavirus: Theme park becomes coronavirus antibody testing station for NHS staff

Tom Acres and Alix Culbertson, news reporters
Staff members monitor a machine dispensing COVID-19 novel coronavirus antigen and antibody diagnostic material onto a membrane, on a production line making virus testing kits at the SD Biosensor bio-diagnostic company near Cheongju, south of Seoul on March 27, 2020. - SD Biosensor is one of five companies in South Korea -- which appears to have brought its epidemic under control with a huge "trace, test and treat" effort -- making diagnostic tests for the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo by ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of frontline NHS staff are being tested this weekend to find out if they have had coronavirus at a drive-through facility at a theme park.

Cabins have been set up in one of the main car parks at Chessington World of Adventures, on the outskirts of southwest London, so NHS staff can drive up to them and get their nose and mouth swabbed by nurses to be sent off for testing.

They started swabbing NHS staff, who have been specifically referred, on Friday as the government announced increased COVID-19 antigen testing, developed in partnership with UK businesses, research institutes and universities, will be rolled out immediately to those working in hospitals and social care.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that the testing would begin this weekend, "dramatically" scaling up next week, to allow those working in health and social care to "have security in the knowledge that they can safely return to work if their test is negative".

"This is absolutely crucial to our response to - and fight against - coronavirus," he added.

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The first of three new laboratories is expected to start operating this weekend and will initially process about 800 samples from frontline health workers before scaling up every week, with the two other laboratories to open soon, the government said.

Amazon and Royal Mail will help get the tests to NHS workers and back to the labs, while Boots has been supporting the initial trials by supplying volunteer healthcare clinicians to be testers.

NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the tests would initially be focused on those working in intensive care, A&E, GP practices and staff running ambulance services.

The government's announcement comes after increasing criticism for the lack of testing, with a petition started by a nurse asking for frontline NHS staff to be tested attracting more than a million signatures within days.

What is antigen testing?

Antigen testing detects whether there are antigens present in a person's blood.

Antigens are part of the body's immune system - they are contained within a virus and are triggered to help the body fight off infection and develop antibodies.

Antigens can be detected in blood before antibodies are made, meaning they are a much quicker way of identifying whether someone has an infection.

These tests are used to detect other viruses such as malaria and flu.

They are different from antibody tests, which can tell you whether you have already had the virus rather than if you are carrying it at the time.

The government said the new testing service "will help end the uncertainty of whether NHS staff need to stay at home".

Those who test negative for coronavirus will be able to return to work, ending the need for those displaying symptoms but who have not got COVID-19 to self-isolate as a precaution.

Sir Simon said 33,000 hospital beds - the equivalent of 50 new hospitals - across England had been freed up in existing hospitals for COVID-19 patients, with more to come as new makeshift hospitals are opened in major cities.

Work is almost complete on transforming London's enormous ExCel Centre into the NHS Nightingale Hospital, which will house thousands of beds for coronavirus patients.

Two further Nightingale Hospitals will open in Birmingham's NEC and Manchester's Central exhibition centres with up to 2,000 beds available in Birmingham and 1,000 in Manchester, although they will both start with 500 beds.

Sir Simon said the hospital plans were part of an "unprecedented response" to the pandemic and will be staffed predominantly by NHS doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, with military medics on hand if needed.

More than 18,000 retired doctors, nurses and other former NHS staff have volunteered and will be given a full induction and online training "to help them hit the ground running", Sir Simon said.

Regarding the increase in testing, he said: "We will be rolling out staff testing across the NHS, starting next week with the critical care nurses, other staff in intensive care, emergency departments, ambulance services, GPs.

"As testing volumes continue to increase, we want to widen that to essential public service workers, as well as our social care workers, and continue with patient testing that is so vital."

Mr Gove led Friday's news briefing for the first time in the absence of Boris Johnson, after the prime minister announced earlier in the day he had tested positive for coronavirus and had gone into self-isolation.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has previously stood in for the PM but was also unavailable as he is also self-isolating after testing positive, having experienced "mild symptoms" of the disease.

They both revealed that they had been diagnosed in video messages posted on Twitter on Friday morning.

There was also no sign of the government's chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, who revealed on Friday afternoon that he is self-isolating with symptoms of coronavirus.

The total death count in the UK now stands at 1028.