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NHS frontline staff become first to get coronavirus 'antigen test'

NHS frontline staff are being tested for coronavirus at a temporary drive through testing station in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in Chessington, Greater London. Credit: PA

Hundreds NHS frontline staff will this weekend be tested for coronavirus, as the government aims to ramp up diagnosing capabilities with "antigen testing".

Cabinet minister Michael Gove announced in yesterday's daily coronavirus press conference that the government had brought together universities, businesses and research institutes in a “new alliance” to boost testing capacity for frontline workers.

Mr Gove said testing is "absolutely crucial to our response to - and fight against - coronavirus" - the infection rate of which, he says, is "doubling every three to four days".

He said tests will be trailed on frontline staff "immediately", with the hope that "hundreds" will have taken place by the end of the weekend.

He said that number will be "dramatically" scaled up next week to ensure "health and social care workers can have security in the knowledge that they are safe to return to work if their test is negative".

Credit: PA

Among the first to receive the tests will be critical care nurses, intensive care staff, ambulance workers and GPs.

The first of three new testing laboratories will open this weekend, with an expected 800 tests to processed, the government has said, with the two other facilities set to open soon.

The UK coronavirus death toll now stands at 759 while the 14,579 people have tested positive for the virus.

Simon Stevens, chief executive of the NHS, said it is "urgently important" that those off work sick can be tested for coronavirus.

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Mr Stevens also revealed how 33,000 coronavirus beds had been made available in the NHS, with additional beds to come as more facilities are converted into temporary hospitals.

After work began on London's Excel centre becoming an NHS Nightingale Hospital, Mr Stevens said he had given the "go ahead" to two more, one in Manchester's Central Convention Complex and one in Birmingham's NEC.

He said the "extraordinary action" of converting sites into field hospitals in "very short order" had been taken because the problem is "not just confined to London".

  • What is an antigen test?

Antigen testing reveals whether particular antigens are in a person's blood.

According to Patient.info, antigens are particles that stimulate antibodies - part of the immune system that fights infection - to be created in the body.

If particular antigens and antibodies can be detected in the blood, it can indicate the presence of a particular infection.

Antigens can be detected in the blood before antibodies have been created, and so antigen tests can more quickly reveal if an infection is present.

Antigen tests are good to show whether a person currently has a virus, whereas antibody tests are better at showing whether a person has had a virus.

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On the new tests, Mr Stevens said: “I can say that today we will be rolling out staff testing across the NHS, starting next week with the critical care nurses, other staff in intensive care, emergency departments, ambulance services, GPs.

“As testing volumes continue to increase, we want to widen that to essential public service workers, as well as our social care workers, and continue with patient testing that is so vital.”

The news was announced at a press conference in which the prime minister, his health secretary and chief medical officer were absent due to coronavirus.

Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock have tested positive for the virus, while Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty is self-isolating with symptoms.

But Mr Johnson said he can continue to work, "thanks to the wizardry of modern technology".