Covid testing shortage may have a 'devastating' impact on patient care

Covid testing shortage could have a ‘devastating’ impact on patient care, doctors warn as Sajid Javid faces calls to prioritise lateral flow access to NHS workers with another FORTNIGHT of supply issues expected

  • Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the system for getting Covid swabs to NHS employees was ‘not working’
  • He said many doctors and nurses were being left unable to work because they couldn’t get lateral flow tests
  • Sajid Javid yesterday said supply issues were likely to continue for another two weeks 

Britain’s shortage of Covid swabs could have a ‘devastating’ impact on patient care in hospitals, leading doctors have warned.

Thousands of people are struggling to access lateral flow tests, which ran out again yesterday. Supply issues are expected to continue for another fortnight, with the problem having a knock-on effect on NHS staff and other vital parts of the economy. 

The British Medical Association’s chairman, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, warned the current system for ensuring doctors and medics receive the vital kits was ‘not working’.

He warned thousands of medics were unable to turn up for shifts because they could not get tested ‘at a time of acute workforce shortages and winter pressures’. He called on ministers to prioritise NHS employees for access to the swabs.

Demand for Covid swabs has spiralled amid record-breaking cases, calls to take swabs before heading out for New Year’s Eve celebrations and after the Government changed self-isolation rules to allow Britons to leave three days early if they test negative on days six and seven.

Sajid Javid warned in a letter to MPs that supplies would likely be ‘constrained’ for another fortnight because of the ‘huge demand’ for tests.

The Health Secretary hinted that vulnerable patients, such as care home residents and staff, would be prioritised for deliveries of lateral flow tests. He also claimed Britain had trebled its order for lateral flow tests in January and February to keep up with demand.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the head of the British Medical Association, has warned that NHS employees are not able to get hold of lateral flow tests. Health Secretary Sajid Javid (right) says there could be another two weeks of disruption to testing supply

Daily Covid admission in London have risen again, with 456 newly-infected patients placed on wards on December 28. This is the second day in a row admissions been above the crucial 400-a-day threshold that Government advisers warned could trigger nationwide intervention

Dr Nagpaul said: ‘Being unable to get the tests means staff may not be legally allowed to work and at a time of acute workforce shortages and winter pressures this could be devastating for the care that can be given right across the NHS. 

‘For example, if a key worker is isolating and needs to have a negative PCR or lateral flow test on day six and seven, and cannot get access to them, they will not be able to return to work.’

He added: ‘The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has no doubt had a massive impact on demand for lateral flow test kits and PCR tests, however it is vital that the promised new supply of kits are offered to key workers such as health and social care staff as a priority.’

A council yesterday took matters into its own hands and dished out lateral flow tests outside a Nando’s.

The national system for supplying Covid swabs has faced shortages for weeks — with many Britons left unable to get the swabs.

But in Slough residents were able to get swabs yesterday thanks to their local authority.

The council has signed a deal with private testing provider Solutions 4 Health to get tests to people who do not have symptoms of the virus. 

A van from the company was pictured outside a Nando’s in the city centre yesterday dishing out the swabs.

It gave out packs of seven and 20 swabs to residents, with some reportedly walking away with shopping bags full of the tests.

The council first signed a Covid testing deal with Solutions 4 Health in January.  

Current rules allow people to leave self-isolation three days early if they test negative on days six and seven of quarantine.

Vaccinated people who are close contacts of positive cases are also required to take lateral flow tests every day for ten days to avoid quarantine.

And this month guidance was updated to allow NHS employees who live with someone who has the virus to come into work providing they test negative with a lateral flow every day. 

Hospitals across the country are currently battling against a shortage of workers, with thousands self-isolating because of the virus.

It is feared that Covid swab shortages will exacerbate the problem and lead to many needlessly having to spend time away from their frontline roles. 

NHS England figures published today showed 70,762 employees were absent from work over the week to December 26, a 9.2 per cent increase from the previous seven-day spell. 

This included 24,632 NHS staff at hospital trusts were absent due to Covid reasons on December 26, up 31 per cent from 18,829 a week earlier and nearly double the number at the start of the month (12,508). 

Across hospital trusts, at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals trust, 1,144 staff were absent for Covid-19 reasons on December 26, up from 699 previously, while Manchester University trust reported 835 absences, up from 548.

Other trusts with steep jumps in coronavirus-related absences include University Hospitals of Leicester (522 on December 26, up from 356 a week earlier), Nottingham University (791, up from 658) and Leeds Teaching Hospitals (502, up from 364).

The rising absences are against a backdrop of increasing Covid patient numbers in hospitals, which yesterday broke through 11,000 in England for the first time since early February.

And as the NHS constructs eight mini-‘Nightingale’ hospitals in preparation for an expected influx of Covid patients. 

Each will be able to care for up to 100 Covid patients following a stay in intensive care, but questions have already been raised over how the units will be staffed. The old Nightingales only cared for 350 Covid patients — or less than 0.2 per cent of patients last winter.

Mr Javid told MPs that the huge demand for swabs would see supplies likely limited over the next two weeks.

He wrote: ‘In light of the huge demand for LFDs seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day.’

Nurses, lorry drivers and Government officials could all be prioritised for Covid swabs in the New Year under plans to prevent the return to work being thrown into chaos.

Ministers are also considering whether to free-up capacity by dropping the requirement for people who get a positive lateral flow test to also get a PCR, reports The Telegraph.

Around a million lateral flow tests are currently being carried out every day in England, official figures showed, and more than 600,000 PCR swabs are also being analysed every 24 hours.

This compares with a supply of about 900,000 lateral flows a day and up to 700,000 PCRs every 24 hours. 

ST GEORGE’S HOSPITAL, SOUTH LONDON: Construction workers began erecting a temporary field hospital in the grounds of St George’s Hospital in Tooting today

WILLIAM HARVEY HOSPITAL IN ASHFORD, KENT: Pictured above is construction work beginning on the William Harvey ‘mini-Nightingale’ hospital, situated in the site’s car park

The above shows where England’s eight new ‘mini-Nightingales’ will be set up. These will aim to treat 100 Covid patients following a stay in intensive care, and will be on hospital sites to ensure they can be properly manned. Previous Nightingales could not get enough nurses

Professor Azeem Majeed, a primary care and public health expert at Imperial College London, told The Guardian that the Government was ‘in part to blame’ for the shortage of tests.

He said: ‘It has become very clear that there are nowhere near enough lateral flow tests for Covid in England to allow the Government’s policy of their indiscriminate use.’

He called on ministers to publish ‘clear guidance… on what groups should be prioritised for testing and how frequently they should test’.

It comes as the NHS begins constructing Nightingale hospitals in preparation for an influx of hospital cases. Work has already started at St George’s Hospital in South London and the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent.

The overspill sites — which could also be erected in canteens and gyms if needed in the coming weeks — will be equipped with beds and machines for patients who still need minor treatment.

The drive forms part of a new NHS ‘war footing’ to tackle the Omicron wave, which is starting to pile pressure on hospitals.  

But questions have already been raised as to how the units will be manned amid the spiralling rates of absences among the health service coupled with the 100,000-plus vacancies before Covid struck. 

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers — which represents hospital trusts — said yesterday that staffing the makeshift wards posed a ‘major challenge’ and that ‘you can’t just magic up the number of staff that are needed to staff these beds out of thin air’.

He added, however, that having the facilities on existing hospital grounds ‘maximises the NHS’s ability to meet that challenge’ and that he expects volunteers will be called in if the sites were needed to be used.

Meanwhile, Pat Cullen, from the Royal College of Nursing, warned that it would mean nursing resources are ‘spread thinner’. She said that she had ‘no idea’ how the hubs would be staffed.

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