One million home testing kits for coronavirus could be sent out in a matter of weeks, according to public health officials.
Public Health England (PHE) appeared to provide hope that the UK lockdown could be scaled back after announcing that testing kits were being assessed for household use.
People are currently having to obey strict rules about remaining indoors in a bid to stall the spread of coronavirus.
But testing kits could allow those who have had the deadly virus to return to their normal routines because health experts believe there is a period of immunity after having contracted the disease.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, confirmed plans were in place for “a million tests that people can do themselves”.
“In other words, members of the public will be able to take a blood test and send it back in the post and get that analysed,” she told the health and social care committee on Thursday.
“That is an antibody test that tells you if you have had the condition.
“That is absolutely critical for two reasons: to understand what is going on but also to allow people to return to work.
“That is well advanced but not ready yet. We need to be absolutely sure it is a valid test.
“We expect that to come within a couple of weeks but I wouldn’t want to over promise on that, and I think the chief medical officer has been absolutely clear on it being right before it is put out.”
Prof Doyle said immunity was thought to be at its “strongest” for 28 days after fighting off the disease, but the period of protection could be longer.
In the committee’s first virtual session, health professionals were critical of delays in testing those on the front line of treating Covid-19 patients.
The Government has vowed that it will roll out more testing of doctors, nurses and care workers but has so far prioritised patient testing.
Medical practitioner representatives said staff numbers were under strain as workers followed Government guidelines to self-isolate if they started showing coronavirus symptoms.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), told MPs via videolink: “At this time of year, it is estimated that 10% of the population could have a symptom of a temperature or a cough in a non-Covid situation.
“We had situations where many GP practices and hospitals were understaffed, the staff themselves who were self-isolating were telling us they felt able to work but were following the guidance, and that if they were able to be tested they would come back to work.
“It seems counter-intuitive that we are reducing our workforce when we need our NHS workforce the most.
“On March 16 we heard from the Prime Minister an announcement that healthcare workers would be prioritised but that hasn’t materialised.”
Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, added: “We are very keen to get staff tested as soon as possible.
“From our point of view, and everyone around the country is saying that rotas are becoming more challenging because of this.”
The committee also heard there were issues with both the “adequacy and the supply” of personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff, with the supply of face masks running low.
Dr Nagpaul said the experience of ringing the emergency NHS PPE hotline was for doctors to be advised to source their own equipment.
He added: “As a minimum, a healthcare worker should have their eyes protected and also to have a protective gown.
“We have neither of those in general practice, in the community and nor for that matter front line staff in A&E.”
Dr Henderson called for manufacturers to be asked to step-up the production of visors to cover faces in the same way they had been for patient ventilators.
Prof Doyle admitted doctors could be spreading the disease to patients while not displaying symptoms of Covid-19, given those infected can go without showing outward signs of being ill for three to five days in the majority of cases.