Health and Social Care Committee calls for action on testing NHS staff

A committee of MPs has highlighted the impact and unprecedented challenge caused by COVID-19 to the provision of essential services.

The Health and Social Care Committee called for urgent action to assess and tackle a backlog of appointments and patient demand for all health services, specifically across cancer treatments, mental health services, dentistry services, GP services and elective surgery. The committee of MPs also said that a compelling case had been made for the nationwide routine testing of all NHS staff adding that they 'could not understand why it could not be introduced'.

They called for testing to be rolled out as quickly as possible, before the winter-flu season begins, commenting that "staff should not be put at any further unnecessary risk of catching or spreading COVID-19". 

The inquiry, launched in April, considered the provision of essential health and care services both during and after the pandemic. The Health and Social Care committee's final report, Delivering core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyondpoints out that the pandemic has placed an unprecedented burden on the delivery of core NHS and care services. This has resulted in the delay, suspension or cancellation of services which in turn has led to a significant increase in waiting times, the backlog of appointments and pent-up demand for medical treatments.

MPs said they were concerned that this has, in part, been created as a result of many individuals being too scared to access the medical treatment they require because they are uncertain as to whether NHS services are safe to use. In addition, in March 2020, Sir Simon Stevens issued an instruction that cancer services should not be stopped, but it is clear that this instruction was not always adhered to.

Health and Social Care Committee Chair Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP said: “We are proud of the heroic contribution made by frontline NHS and care staff during this pandemic, which has saved many lives. Thanks to their efforts not a single coronavirus patient has been denied an intensive care bed or ventilator unlike in other countries.

“However, the pandemic has also massively impacted normal NHS services, something that could have been mitigated with earlier infection control measures in hospitals and clearer communication to patients whose care was disrupted. Weekly testing of NHS staff has been repeatedly promised in hotspot areas but is still not being delivered. Failure to do so creates a real risk that the NHS will be forced to retreat into being a largely Covid-only service during a second spike.

"We've heard of severe disruption to services, especially cancer, and here we could be looking at tens of thousands avoidable deaths within a year. If we’re to avoid this going forward it is time to give as much priority to avoiding harm and death caused by the interruption of normal NHS services and introduce mass testing for all NHS staff. Today we set out these and other steps the government and NHS leaders must take to manage services through a second wave."

Commenting on the report, Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians said: “We welcome the Committee’s recommendation to implement routine testing for all NHS staff across the country.

“Our recent member survey showed an increase in the proportion of doctors unable to get a test within 24 hours – and while staff absences are currently low, 40% of doctors off work are isolating because they cannot get a test for a family member.

“As we head towards Winter with a rising infection rate, problems with accessing testing impacts the NHS’ ability to treat patients with COVID-19 and to deliver potentially life-saving care for other illnesses.

“It is vital that testing is immediately available for doctors and their families to ensure NHS staff can safely come to work and provide patients with the treatment they need.”