Public Health England (PHE) has announced that it will conduct ‘random’ tests in 100 GP practices to detect cases of coronavirus (Covid-19).
Patients presenting to participating practices and NHS hospitals with severe respiratory infections but who do not display Covid-19 symptoms will be tested as part of a new surveillance system.
PHE said this new strategy will enable it to identify early evidence of spread within England if this occurs.
It said the programme of testing would include eight NHS hospitals and ‘a network of around 100 primary care sites across England’, in a bid to identify the virus both in patients who are severely ill and only mildly unwell.
According to PHE, there is ‘no current evidence to show that the virus is circulating in the community in England’ but the virus is no longer contained to China, with the recent spread in South Korea, Italy and Iran.
PHE medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle said: ‘We have taken a belt and braces approach throughout this outbreak. This new system is another important way we can help limit the impact of Covid-19 in the UK, as we continue to ensure we have the best possible intelligence to protect the public’s health.
‘There is no change in risk for the public but taking this preparatory step now will enable us to better detect and contain the spread of the virus. The UK’s infection control procedures are world-leading, and the system we are announcing today further strengthens our response.’
Earlier this week, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged countries around the world to be ‘in a phase of preparedness’ for the coronavirus becoming a pandemic.
The NHS told Pulse it has made ‘significant preparation’ to handle the situation effectively should this happen.
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘The NHS prepares carefully for this type of incident, with specialised services and other teams in place across the country, and we are one of the first countries in the world to develop a test for the new virus.
‘The quickest way to get help is for people to call NHS 111, with the feedback from guests and patients of the NHS so far overwhelmingly positive and showing that people are getting the support that they need, thanks to the significant preparation which has gone in and, most importantly, the world-class efforts of NHS staff.’
Dr Peter Holden, emergency preparedness lead of the BMA’s GP Committee, told our sister publication, Pulse, that he believes the NHS is ‘as prepared as it can be’.
He said: ‘The NHS has been preparing for infectious disease for a long time. It is difficult to define preparedness in the absence of knowing what the threat is… You don’t know how quickly the tide will come in, how high it will go, how quickly it will recede and whether it will come back again.
‘There are loads of contingency plans but all we can say is we need a car to get from A to B but we don’t know if we need an estate car, a mini car or a mini bus.’
This comes as GPs raised a number of concerns about NHS preparedness, including a lack of available protective equipment and claims that NHS 111 was signposting potential coronavirus cases to GP practice.