Mail Online: UK May 22, 2020 – So-called coronavirus “immunity certificates” that could allow Britons to return to work have come a step closer after ministers announced that mass antibody tests are being deployed.
NHS and care workers will start to be given the tests from next week after Matt Hancock announced the government has signed a contract for 10 million kits.
The screening will finally show who has been through the disease and emerged with some level of resistance, a blind spot that has so far been a major blow to the UK response.
At the Downing Street briefing last night, the Health Secretary stressed that the science of whether people develop immunity, and how long it lasts, was still emerging.
However, he confirmed that ministers are already looking at a ‘system of certification’ that would signify people who are safe to go back to work and mix freely with others.
The prospect has already raised concerns about the social impact – with the government’s own experts warning that those who are not immune could be shunned and desperate individuals might deliberately try to get infected.
Mr Hancock said: “We’re developing this critical science to know the impact of a positive antibody test and to develop the systems of certification to ensure people who have positive antibodies can be given assurances of what they can safely do.”
He added: “We’re not yet in a position to say that those who test positive in these antibody tests are immune from coronavirus.
“But as our understanding of the disease improves, the insight these antibody tests provide will be crucial.”
Earlier this month, a spokesman for Boris Johnson said there was the possibility of issuing some kind of certificate based on immunity but that scientists still needed to know more about that subject area.
It remains unknown whether people who have recovered from coronavirus have any immunity from catching it again.
But ministers hope that if scientists do prove immunity exists, certificates will allow people to return to the workforce and to ditch social distancing regulations.
This could allow an elderly patient with a positive result to go to hospital for hip surgery, in the knowledge that they were highly unlikely to catch the virus on the ward.
Equally a doctor or nurse with a positive result could be redeployed to virus wards as they would also be at very low risk.
Announcing the antibody test rollout at the Downing Street press conference yesterday, Mr Hancock said: ‘It’s not just about the clinical advances that these tests can bring.
It’s that knowing you have these antibodies will help us to understand more in the future if you are at lower risk of catching coronavirus, of dying from coronavirus and of transmitting coronavirus.
The NHS Confederation,which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said: “This could be a game changer – and it is great that we now have a reliable antibody test.
“As the Government acknowledges of course there are still unknowns. We don’t yet know whether antibodies mean you are immune.”
Earlier the Prime Minister’s spokesman said the tests would be “free for people who need them, as you would expect”.
The Department of Health hopes to carry out 40,000 antibody tests a week although they will initially be performed in hospitals rather than at home.
They will initially be offered to NHS staff and care workers but some patients will be able to request them via their doctors.
These could include key workers – teachers, train drivers or prison staff.
Ten million of the tests have been ordered from Abbott, Roche and Ortho Clinical Diagnostics.
Separately, the Heath Secretary outlined preliminary findings from research involving antibody tests which suggest 5 percent of people nationally, and 17 percent in London, have already had the virus.
And he revealed ministers are trialling an on-the-spot test to tell patients if they have the virus in just 20 minutes – up from the current average of two days.
This would let them return to work the same day if they were negative rather than self-isolating just in case while they awaited results.
If deemed effective, it will be rolled out nationally within six weeks.
Speaking at yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, Mr Hancock tried to play down the failure to get the NHS coronavirus app off the ground, which has been further pushed back from its planned launch in mid-May.