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Coronavirus: Matt Hancock urged to bring in NHS staff testing before potential second wave hits in winter

Coronavirus: Matt Hancock urged to bring in NHS staff testing before potential second wave hits in winter

A healthcare worker at Epsom Hospital (PA)

3 min read

Failings in the NHS caused by the coronavirus crisis must be addressed before a potential second wave of infection hits this winter, MPs have warned.

The Commons health select committee says poor communication with seriously ill patients, long waiting lists for life-saving treatments and a lack of routine testing for staff could have a serious impact on the health service's ability to cope should the number of cases spike again.

Committee chair and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has written to his successor Matt Hancock and NHS England chief Simon Stevens, asking for the issues to be tackled "urgently" as part of winter preparations.

It follows evidence-gathering sessions for an inquiry into the delivery of core NHS and care services during the pandemic and beyond, a full report on which is expected in the autumn.

“We’ve heard from patients who have suffered huge distress and anxiety as a result of the interruptions in NHS care caused by the pandemic," Mr Hunt said. 

"People understand why this has happened and recognise the huge effort made by frontline staff during the crisis. However, patients report a failure by the NHS to let them know what is going to happen to their treatment going forward and put their fears to rest.

“There is going to be a huge backlog and people with illnesses - sometimes life-threatening - need to know where they stand. Likewise, NHS staff want to know they will get the weekly testing that has now been offered to care home staff so they can be confident they won’t pass on infections to patients."

Mr Hunt also pointed to evidence given to the committee by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, who said he supported rotuine testing for NHS workers "in principle"

He added: "There should be no further delays given the complicated logistics necessary to set it up ahead of winter.”

Mr Whitty previously said he regretted that testing had not been introduced sooner when the crisis hit, and that its absence had left officials “trying to see our way through the fog”.

Recommending routine testing for all clinical staff, as well as other hospital workers including cleaners and porters, the committee's letter says: "We conclude that, although the Government and NHSE/I have put enormous effort into the exceptional task of managing the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a significant failure in expanding testing of NHS staff. 

"We strongly recommend that both the Government and NHSE/I urgently focus their attention on introducing routine testing."

Last month, analysis by Labour revealed the number of patients waiting for vital diagnostic tests had skyrocketed while the NHS struggled with the impact of Covid-19.

NHS England data revealed that of the 840,742 people waiting for tests, more than half (55.7%) are facing a delay longer than the six-week target. 

In February 2020, before the pandemic hit, that figure was 2.8%.

Between February and April this year, figures show the number of patients waiting more than six weeks for MRI scans, used to detect tumours throughout the body, increased by more than 70,000.

The select committee's letter goes on: "We have heard that Sir Simon 'expects' waiting times and referrals to key health services to 'go up quite significantly over the second half of the year'.

"Despite this, however, it remains unclear to us what practical steps the Government and NHSE/I are taking (and are planning to take) to meet the backlog and the pent-up demand from patients.

"Consequently, we are unsure of the extent to which NHSE/I is aware of the dangers, to patients and the health and care system as a whole, that would result from pent-up demand not being adequately met."

The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England have been contacted for comment.

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