NHS Hospitals Enlisted to Test for COVID-19 Spread

Peter Russell

February 26, 2020

A new surveillance system to detect early evidence of COVID-19 spread in England has been set up.

The strategy will incorporate testing by eight hospitals in addition to surveillance in the primary care sector.

It will be managed by Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS.

According to PHE, there was no evidence currently that the new coronavirus was circulating in the community in England. However, there has been evidence of wider transmission of the virus in areas outside of China, including Italy, South Korea, and Iran.

The Health Secretary Matt Hanock told the Commons today, "we have a clear, 4-part plan to respond to the outbreak of this disease: Contain. Delay. Research and Mitigate.

"We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public."

Later on Wednesday, Dr Hans Kluge, World Health Organisation Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge, had a message for health professionals: "You are the heroes of this response. As you face greater risks, you need the equipment and training to protect yourselves so that you can continue saving others."

'Preparatory Step' to Reduce Spread of the Virus

Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE's medical director, said: "We have taken a belt and braces approach throughout this outbreak. This new system is another important way we can help limit the impact of COVID-19 in the UK, as we continue to ensure we have the best possible intelligence to protect the public's health.

"There is no change in risk for the public but taking this preparatory step now will enable us to better detect and contain the spread of the virus."

The new surveillance system will involve testing samples from patients with severe respiratory infections who do not meet the current case definition for COVID-19.

Depending on the results, patients would be given the support they need, while "rapid public health actions" would be taken, PHE said.

Hospitals involved in the surveillance programme were listed as:

  • Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals – Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

  • Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust – ICU and Severe Respiratory Failure (SRF)

  • Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust – SRF

  • Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust – SRF

  • University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust – ICU and SRF

  • University Hospitals of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust – ICU

  • Nottingham University Hospital NHS Trust (City hospital campus and Queen's Medical Centre) – ICU

  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – ICU

The hospital testing programme will be complemented by testing in around 100 primary care sites to assess any virus spread involving more mild cases.

"The UK’s infection control procedures are world-leading, and the system we are announcing today further strengthens our response," Prof Doyle said.

A 'Welcome and Prudent' Step

Professor Sheila Bird, former programme leader at the Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge, told the Science Media Centre that the new surveillance programme was "prudent", and likely to have been pre-planned.

She said: "Planned surveillance for undiagnosed asymptomatic or mild COVID-19 disease – the other end of the COVID-19-disease-spectrum – is clearly also in hand with collaboration from a network of primary care practices. Such practices have played an important role in seasonal influenza, as they have given early warning of increased consultations for influenza-like illnesses.

"However, COVID-19 surveillance may have different subject-recruitment criteria and is also likely to want to include testing for COVID-19 in a manner that does not risk onward-transmission.

"How to deliver mild-disease surveillance is tricky so that its planning will be time well-spent.

"The good news is that thinking caps were donned pre-emptively."

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