Government needs clear testing strategy rather than focus on targets, GPs warn

16 May 2020, 13:41 | Updated: 16 May 2020, 13:42

A soldier from 2 Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland take a test sample at a Covid-19 testing centre
A soldier from 2 Scots Royal Regiment of Scotland take a test sample at a Covid-19 testing centre. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The Government needs to move away from an "arbitrary focus on numbers" to a clear testing strategy to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 infections, the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) has warned.

In a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said there is a lack of confidence in the Government's testing strategy - including in the accuracy and timing of results.

He added that while improvements have been made, a clear and comprehensive plan is needed to stop a second swell of coronavirus cases.

Prof Marshall wrote: "Whilst we recognise the work of Government and a range of stakeholders, we do not believe that there is sufficient clarity on a joined-up comprehensive testing strategy to prevent a second wave of infections and to secure the overall health of the population.

"As we ease lockdown over the coming weeks and months, it is essential that the profession and patients have full confidence in the approach to test, track and trace."

Prof Marshall said a joined-up approach is required between the NHS, social care and community care - including care homes which he warned are on the "front lines" of the pandemic.

He added: "In the absence of a clear strategy and with delays in social care planning, patients have been left vulnerable.

"I am sure you will agree that now is the time to move beyond an arbitrary focus on numbers and targets and ensure that our loved ones in vulnerable settings are given particular protection."

Prof Marshall stressed the importance of confidence in the testing strategy from both the healthcare profession and the general public as the Government moves to ease parts of the lockdown.

He said the Government needs to clearly inform the public about the importance of test, track and trace, and other measures that will accompany the NHS Covid-19 tracking app.

Meanwhile, Sir Mark Walport, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation and a former government chief scientific adviser, said test, track and trace is critical as a second wave is still a possibility.

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He said: "It is a combination of people being really careful about how they behave coupled with identifying cases as early and as rigorously by testing as possible, and then working out who their contacts have been and making sure that they do isolate themselves.

"As measures are taken to relax social distancing, they have got to be taken very, very cautiously indeed.

"There is no question that the prospect of a second wave does exist. That is undoubtedly the case. It will continue to exist while there are a significant number of cases out there."

Prof Marshall added the RCGP is aware of concerns from healthcare workers about the accuracy and timing of some test results.

He said: "We know that the distances that tests are travelling to labs and the wait time for results is undermining confidence in the process and results themselves.

"Any testing strategy must therefore commit to building confidence in the process, including a commitment to improving the sensitivity and specificity of the tests."

Prof Marshall also called for GPs to be given guidance on how to help patients get tested, and asked for "transparent communication" from Government.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "High-quality testing on a mass scale is an integral part of our strategy to stop the spread of the virus and save lives.

"Thanks to the significant increases in capacity which we have built at pace, tens of millions of people are now eligible for tests and we have been able to prioritise our frontline health and care staff, essential workers and the most vulnerable, including in our care homes.

"We have also doubled the capacity of NHS and PHE labs to ensure people receive their results swiftly, with 95% of tests processed in less than 48 hours."

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