While many will welcome the return to pre-pandemic living outlined in the white paper, we must take a cautious approach to “normalisation”. Although you cannot test your way out of a pandemic, testing can be used to understand and limit the spread of a virus.
Removing free testing at scale – both polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and lateral flow devices (LFDs) – will compromise population health surveillance and our ability to limit any future spread of Covid-19.
Therefore, the capability to resume testing at scale, and the associated workforce support, must be part of the Government’s Contingency Plan.
From 1st April, the Government will no longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England (there will be limited symptomatic testing available for a small number of yet-to-be-confirmed at-risk groups and social care staff).
With the Government now only encouraging ‘safer behaviours’ and there being no way of tracking an accurate infection rate of the currently circulating virus, this could lead to false public confidence and then an upswing in the infection rate.
The pace at which the vaccination programme was rolled out has meant that we have a population with a good level of immunity. This could all change in the event of a mutation that enables the virus to escape the protection the vaccine provides.
Such a situation will lead to an increased infection rate without the systems and infrastructure currently in place to help control the spread, very much like in the early days of the pandemic.
While mass testing was always a temporary measure to help mitigate the worst outcomes of the Covid pandemic, it is our position that there must be a plan in place to return to full-scale testing at pace in the event of a new variant of concern or to respond to the next pandemic.
The Covid pandemic has highlighted the importance of laboratory tests and laboratory professionals within healthcare. As Covid testing at scale ceases, our diagnostic services must be reinforced and supported to deal with the healthcare backlog effectively, Covid-related illnesses and maintain a resilient pandemic service for the future.
Throughout the Covid pandemic, our microbiology, virology and infection control teams continued to support patients and the public despite many trusts being unable to fill microbiology posts and the resulting workforce pressures. Capacity will always be required in this vital area, and the current staffing shortfall must be urgently addressed.
Diagnostics laboratories will now have to face the huge amount of work involved in dealing with the backlog of elective care caused by Covid.
The Government must recognise the biomedical science profession’s great contribution to controlling the spread of Covid by investing in the biomedical science workforce.
A thank you to the biomedical science profession
Thank you to the biomedical scientists, clinical scientists, advanced practitioners, and medical laboratory assistants who have made mass testing for Covid a reality alongside maintaining a full diagnostic service.
Over the last couple of years, your brave and tireless efforts have enabled the UK to mitigate the worst of a global pandemic. They could not have done it without you – you are the vital heart of healthcare.