Coronavirus home-testing kits to check if individuals have ever had the virus could be available via Amazon or Boots within weeks, health chiefs have said.
Following warnings that the outbreak is likely to peak around Easter, senior officials laid out plans to ramp up testing of NHS staff, patients and the wider British public.
It came as Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, announced that 405,000 people had signed up to be volunteers for the NHS in just 24 hours.
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Health chiefs said they have secured 3.5 million home-testing kits – which will be targeted at key workers, including hospital and care staff – and ordered millions more, which will be offered more widely.
Prof Sharon Peacock, Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England (PHE), said trials of the tests should completed this week, before their wider roll-out.
Prof Peacock said that, in future, the finger-prick tests could be distributed by Amazon, or pharmacists like Boots.
Asked if it could happen as soon as next week, she told MPs: “I would be somewhat less categorical about the date but in the near future people will be able to order a test they can test themselves or go to Boots or somewhere similar to get their finger-prick test done.”
Health officials later suggested the timescale was more likely to be weeks.
They also stressed that this was unlikely to be a commercial service, with the NHS seeking to harness the logistical skills of such providers rather than allow people to purchase their own kits online.
Such tests – called antibody tests – only work when a person has recovered from the virus.
Officials want the tests to be targeted first at those most likely to have encountered Covd-19, and those who most urgently need to return to work.
Mr Johnson has said these tests would ultimately be a “game changer”, helping millions of people to find out if they had developed immunity to the virus.
Health chiefs said the immediate priority was to boost capacity so that NHS staff currently reporting symptoms could be tested.
At the moment, health services are only testing around 6,000 cases a day – the vast majority of whom are hospital patients.
As a result, most doctors and nurses with possible symptoms, and those who have come into contact with cases, are being forced to self-isolate for up to two weeks without knowing if they have contracted the virus.
Prof Stephen Powis, Medical Director at NHS England, said tests would be made available to some NHS staff “within the next few days”.
Ministers have pledged to increase testing to 25,000 people a day by the end of next month, and ultimately to reach 250,000 tests a day.
Prof Powis said he hoped to “get to hundreds of thousands of tests a day – and we will do that over the course of the next few weeks and we will be making tests available to NHS staff within the next few days”.
Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said the peak of coronavirus cases in the UK could come around Easter, then decline, if Britain follows strict social-distancing and self-isolation rules put in place by the Prime Minister on Monday.
“What we hope is that in about two to three weeks, if people have continued to do as we have asked and cut down their social interactions, we would start to see a change in the slope of the graph,” she said.
“That means the peak will be pushed forward but the height of it will be lower and we can manage all those who need hospital and healthcare safely through our NHS,” she said.
Dr Harries said the shortage of personal protective equipment for frontline staff treating coronavirus patients was a top priority to be tackled – revealing that her own daughter, a junior doctor working for the NHS, had raised the issue.
Medics said they were being sent like “lambs to the slaughter” treating patients, despite the fact they lack masks to protect themselves.
Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, said the ability of the NHS to cope would be a “close-run thing” – and was dependent on the compliance of the public with the current restrictions on movement. “This is going to be a close-run thing, we all know that. Anybody who looks around the world can see this is going to be difficult for every health system,” he said.
“But the measures that have been announced for the general public – which all of us have to do if the NHS is to get through this without exceeding its capacity – and the fantastic work by the NHS – to increase supply, that is the way we will narrow this gap to the smallest possible gap over the next three weeks.”
If everybody stuck to the rules on limiting social interaction “this gap will be probably manageable by the NHS”, he said, adding: “But we cannot guarantee that and nobody who is sensible would wish to guarantee that.”
Chris Hopson, Chief Executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals said: “It’s evident that a number of hospitals are on a trajectory where their critical care capacity will become full within a few days.”
Infectious diseases expert Prof Neil Ferguson said the lockdown should mean the NHS would be able to cope. Extra beds are being created at the ExCel exhibition centre in London, which is being turned into a makeshift, temporary hospital.
Prof Ferguson, an Imperial College scientist, and author of Government modelling on the pandemic, said keeping people inside and increasing the levels of NHS staffing and beds would prevent intensive care units (ICUs) from being overwhelmed nationally.
There could still be some difficulties at a local level, he told the Government’s science and technology committee.
But there was now a “reasonable degree of certainty” the Government measures would put the epidemic into decline.
“This current strategy being adopted now – we think that in some areas of the country ICUs will get very close to capacity but it won’t be breached at a national level,” Prof Ferguson said.