Asymptomatic NHS staff in England are to receive Covid-19 tests twice a week, the health service has confirmed.
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director for NHS England, confirmed the health service will introduce testing for patient-facing employees twice weekly.
In a letter to Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee, Prof Powis said the tests will initially be given to 250,000 staff across 34 NHS trusts, with a full rollout expected by the end of next week.
Routine testing of NHS staff is already taking place in the hardest-hit areas.
Prof Powis wrote: “Following further scientific validation of the lateral flow testing modality last week, and confirmation over the weekend from Test and Trace that they can now supply the NHS with sufficient test kits, I am pleased to confirm asymptomatic testing of all patient-facing NHS staff.
“The first 34 trusts will deploy this technology this week, benefiting over 250,000 staff, and full rollout should be in place by the end of next week.
“Staff will be asked to test themselves at home twice a week with results available before coming into work.
“Lateral flow devices have a lower specificity and sensitivity than PCR tests.
“Testing twice weekly helps mitigate the sensitivity considerations, and to mitigate the lower specificity all positive results will be retested via PCR.
“As you know, this builds on the extensive asymptomatic staff testing already occurring in parts of the country with outbreaks – over 70,000 NHS staff have been tested asymptomatically in those areas in recent days.
“In addition, as previously notified, NHS trusts will continue to use their own PCR lab capacity for appropriate staff testing, and LAMP saliva testing is being made available to hospitals by Test and Trace in November and December.”
Commenting on the news, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “If this test is sufficiently reliable it could make a real impact on curbing the spread of infection and help to avoid unnecessary staff absences.
“We need to recognise that getting these tests done on this scale is going to be a significant challenge.
“There could also be real difficulties for trusts under major operational pressure that have to manage the risk of losing a number of key frontline staff all at once if a significant number of tests come back positive at the same time.
“We have been arguing for some time that the NHS needed advance warning of when this move was going to be made so it could plan effectively.
“It would therefore, once again, have been better to have had this news with more notice and in greater detail.
“Trusts and frontline staff could then have been clear on how this new approach will work in practice, along with evidence of the tests’ reliability so they could be confident in supporting their introduction.”