Fifteen-minute tests to determine whether people have had a case of coronavirus – and therefore are thought to be immune – will be given to NHS staff and key workers as a priority, according to the chief medical officer.

The government has purchased 3.5 million tests for coronavirus antibodies, which are currently being assessed for accuracy. If they work, the tests would allow doctors and nurses to determine whether they could return to work – and, in the long term, see social distancing restrictions relaxed sooner.

However, there was confusion on Wednesday over the availability of the kits, which would use a drop of blood to identify whether someone has recovered from the virus. Sharon Peacock, of Public Health England (PHE), told MPs that the tests would be available within days rather than weeks or months, and would be bought by the general public online from Amazon or from their local pharmacy. But hours later, at a Downing Street press conference, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the tests would be prioritised for NHS workers initially.

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He also said that establishing the accuracy of the tests was vital, adding: “That’s a very early priority. Then we need to help make sure we can get NHS workers tested to make sure we can work out who is immune or almost certainly immune to this infection and who isn’t. And we will basically go out in a graded way from there. I do not think, and I want to be clear, that this is something we will suddenly be ordering on the internet next week. We need to go through the evaluation, then the first critical uses, and then spread it out from that point of view and we need to do that in a systematic way.” 

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said that accuracy was key, even if it meant the tests were available later than planned. He said: “That is so important that if it means a delay to get there, that delay is worth having. Because if you tell someone, ‘it’s okay you haven’t got it’, and they have got it, that is not a good position to be in. If you tell somebody they’re immune from it, and they’re not, that is not a good position to be in. We must make sure that we get the quality of this absolutely right.¨

Neither PHE nor the government have said what the kits have cost taxpayers and has yet to reveal which company is behind the kits which it is thought could provide a result in 15 minutes.

While an antibody test can confirm whether someone has had the virus, it does not test for whether they are still infected and remain a risk to others. This is the current focus of concern for many hospitals where a lack of testing has meant NHS staff have been forced to isolate at home and are unable to work.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital leaders, said it was vital widespread testing of NHS staff was started as “quickly as possible.”

He said many staff had been forced to stay at home when they were needed most adding: “Having access to testing would allow those who can return to get back to work more quickly.

“It’s encouraging to hear there’s progress with the antibody test to identify who’s already had the disease. That will make a big difference in time, but the immediate focus is on who has Covid-19 now, and the reality is that despite the push to expand testing, it’s not going to be sufficient to cover patients and a significant number of the NHS’s 1.2 million staff.

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“National NHS leaders need to be clearer about this, and about the relative priority that should be given to patient and staff testing.”

The government has said it is aiming to ramp up testing to 25,000 a day within the next three weeks.

A Number 10 spokesman said on Wednesday: “The number of daily tests yesterday was 6,491, up from 5,605 on Monday. Around half of all tests that have been carried out have been completed in the last week.

“The PM and the health secretary have both said that we are working as hard as we can to rapidly scale up our testing efforts and to boost capacity. We’ve just opened a new testing facility in Milton Keynes and we are urgently working across industry to establish viable options to further increase the number of tests.”

Experts said that, if the antibody tests do prove to be accurate, they could be a significant breakthrough. Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia said: “Such tests will effectively tell you that you have already had the infection and therefore most likely to be immune. This is really good news as such antibody tests will be essential to the management of the epidemic.”

He said essential workers who have antibodies would be able to go back to work and vulnerable people could relax their restrictions if they were shown to be immune. It would also help to target a vaccine at those who test as not having been infected and could also help ration protective equipment to NHS staff.

He added the test could answer the question of how widespread the virus is: “The reality is that we do not yet have any hard data on this and the antibody test will be essential to try and answer this essential question.”

 Dr Alexander Edwards, from the University of Reading, warned that the initial order of 3.5 million kits would need to be used carefully.

“Antibody tests need to be used carefully to make sure they give useful results, and be patient if you are suffering at home – you will get tested when needed.

“Even 3.5 million tests could get used up very quickly, let’s help support our front-line NHS staff by making sure these tests are used in the most urgent way, for example to safely allow clinical workers back to patient care without risking passing an infection on.”

Separately, new research by Imperial College London has offered hope that strict lockdowns like those imposed in Britain in recent days can be safely lifted for several weeks as long as governments take action to isolate and quarantine cases as they emerge.

In a new paper, the Imperial team advising the UK government said that after restrictions were lifted in China and Hong Kong, the transmission of new infections seemed no longer linked to people moving around more freely. It said: “These results do not preclude future epidemics in China… However, they do suggest that after very intense social distancing, which resulted in containment, China has successfully exited their stringent social distancing policy to some degree.”

One of the authors, Steven Riley, said: “Although we do not know what will happen next in China, this report shows that very stringent social distancing can be relaxed after containment has been achieved without transmission returning in the short term.”

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