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Announced by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS staff will be first in line for a new coronavirus (COVID-19) testing programme being developed in collaboration with government and industry.

Universities, research institutes and companies across Britain are lending their testing equipment to three new hub laboratories which will be set up for the duration of the crisis. No equipment already in use for coronavirus testing or other vital work will be taken.

All current coronavirus testing and research will continue, including at existing local NHS and Public Health England test laboratories, and this new programme will add significant new capacity.

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The first samples to be processed in the labs will be taken from frontline health workers. As the labs’ capacity increases, other frontline workers will be tested. The samples will be taken at special sites set up around the country, initially in coronavirus hotspots such as London.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We want to save lives, protect the most vulnerable, and relieve pressure on our NHS.

“Healthcare staff are key in our fight against the virus and I want to ensure that any frontline NHS or care worker who has symptoms of coronavirus or who has a family member with symptoms can be tested quickly and reliably.

“I pay tribute to the generosity and public spirit of Britain’s universities, research institutes and companies who have lent us their equipment without hesitation.”

DHSC adds that work is also underway to source more of the kits needed to take samples from people, of which there is a worldwide shortage.

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said: “Laboratory-based testing on this scale is a little like building the medical equivalent of a car factory. We are assembling many different parts, some of them quite specialised and hard to find, then getting them to work accurately together in a highly co-ordinated process.

“There are bound to be teething problems, so we cannot switch on hundreds of thousands of lab tests overnight. But we hope that soon these hub laboratories will be operating round the clock, allowing us to significantly scale up our testing.”

This new service, which will be free, will help end the uncertainty of whether NHS staff need to stay at home. Those who test negative for coronavirus will be able to return to work – enhancing the capacity of the NHS and social care to treat patients and care for those in community settings, with plans for a full roll-out for health, social care and other frontline workers.

Amazon and Royal Mail will help with logistics, while Boots has been supporting initial trials by supplying volunteer healthcare clinicians as testers. It will continue this support as the testing rolls out across the UK. Testing will not be done at Boots stores and these tests will not be available over the counter or for purchase online from any retailers.

Creating the new hub laboratories is one of three main strands to increase the UK Government’s testing programme. The other two are boosting the capacity of existing local NHS and Public Health England labs; and urgently analysing the reliability of home testing kits that do not need labs.

According to DHSC, these home testing kits could be a game-changer – if they are reliable.

Sebastian James, Managing Director of Boots UK and ROI, said: “I am extremely proud that Boots is supporting COVID-19 testing for NHS workers. Boots has been at the heart of UK healthcare for 171 years and has always come forward to support the community in times of need. We will work with the NHS to recruit trained professionals – both Boots colleagues and from the wider community.

“I am sure there will be many trained healthcare clinicians and students, who will step forward to support our dedicated NHS colleagues. Drive through test locations are being defined but will be spread across the UK; they will not however be in Boots stores, allowing our colleagues to focus on supporting our patients and customers.”

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