A lack of testing for NHS workers is resulting in serious staff shortages in hospitals, according to medical leaders who say the government has not made good on its promise to prioritise health workers.
Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the council of the British Medical Association, told parliament’s Health and Social Care Select Committee on Thursday that “large numbers” of NHS staff were already off work with coronavirus symptoms, leaving hospital departments and GPs with serious staff shortages as the demand for care continues to rise.
To underline the scale of the challenge faced by NHS staff, on Thursday the number of patients known to have died from coronavirus in the UK rose to 578 — an increase of 113 and the biggest daily rise so far — with the number of confirmed cases now standing at 11,658.
The government has pledged to increase the UK’s capacity for coronavirus testing rapidly, prioritising frontline health workers and increasing the number of daily tests to 25,000 by the middle of April.
Plans to increase the scale of testing to 25,000 include working with Switzerland’s Roche, a spokesman said, with the company aiming to provide capacity for 5,000 of those additional daily tests. The partnership will supply Public Health England with throughput machines, automated testing technology, already used elsewhere, that allows samples to be processed in less than 3 hours.
But despite the promise last week to ramp up the number of daily tests from 5,000 to 10,000, the government in the past four days carried out between 5,500 and 6,500 daily tests, according to Jeremy Hunt, committee chair and former health secretary.
Dr Nagpaul said government commitments so far “hadn’t materialised” and would likely come too late to prevent serious staff shortages.
“Each day that goes by there are more staff that are self-isolating,” he told the committee, adding that he did not know “how valuable it would be” to roll out further testing in mid-April.
“We’ll be in a completely different situation then, and so many healthcare staff, by that stage, will be infected.”
Without widespread testing availability, staff in hospitals must currently self-isolate if they have any Covid-19 symptoms, including a cough or fever. But because these are so common, at any one time up to 10 per cent of staff were being forced to stay home even if they were able to work, Dr Nagpaul added.
Yvonne Doyle, the chief medical officer of Public Health England, was unable to give a clear date for when all front-line health workers would be able to be tested for coronavirus.
She told the committee the government was setting up labs “going down the spine of England” to process tests, and expected to have capacity for 12,000 tests a day by the end of the month, increasing to 25,000 by the middle of April.
She added that there had been an “escalation” in critical care capacity, particularly in London, where there are currently 570 patients being treated for coronavirus in intensive care units.
Dr Nagpaul’s concerns were echoed by Dr Katherine Henderson, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, who told MPs on Thursday that “rotas are getting more challenging” because of a lack of staff.
The BMA has separately warned that “doctors and patients will die” as a result of governmental failure to provide adequate protective equipment for medical staff.
“This Government expects NHS staff to put themselves at risk of serious illness, or even death, by treating highly infectious Covid-19 patients without wearing proper protection. This is totally unacceptable,” Dr Nagpaul said.
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