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Lack of tests for medics 'caused local Covid outbreaks'

Tom Morgan
Staff need to be routinely checked for coronavirus 
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Failures by Public Health England to launch weekly routine tests to identify asymptomatic hospital and care home staff are causing new Covid-19 hotspots, experts believe.

Tim Spector, a King's College professor who leads the Covid symptom study app, and fellow epidemiologist Carl Heneghan, a professor at Oxford, both issued grave warnings over undetected cases among key workers.

Over the past week, Weston-super-Mare's general hospital has been forced to shut its doors to new admissions in part due to tests on all staff showing 100 of them were infected. Results indicated six per cent  of all workers were infected and asymptomatic.

There has also been a spike against the general downward trend in deaths in Northamptonshire. Eleven died at Northampton General Hospital four at Kettering over a four day period.

Analysis by Prof Spector, head of the department of genetic epidemiology at King's in London, estimates tens of thousands of Britons are currently infected with Covid-19, but are not being told to self-isolate.

"There is this view that a lot of the current cases are being driven by hospitals and care homes," he told the Telegraph. "Many of the 8,000 estimated daily cases are care home or hospital driven and they are just not being tested enough to stamp it out.

"They should all be tested weekly, all the staff. When you go to hospital, you see it's very difficult to social distance. I think it's clear they really need to tighten up on these things."

Care home Covid-19 outbreaks by local authority

Weston-super-Mare was a useful example that "there are a lot of undetected cases in hospital". "If ten to 20 per cent are asymptomatic, you have to routinely check hospital staff," he said. "We also need to get more people to use the symptom apps and that would give an early warning signs. That should be done particularly in hospital staff. We've got about 120,000 healthcare workers on the app but it would be good if we had all one million because clearly we haven't got the capacity to tell everybody.

"By definition in the Covid wards people take great care, but in the corridors, in the canteens, wherever, they are not. I think key workers should be swabbed every week.

"We know that most hospitals haven't been tested weekly but we know there are some exceptions. It's hugely varied regionally." At Weston,  Bill Oldfield, medical director of the University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, has said it was too early to say what was the "root cause" of the outbreak. Staff have been urgently told to stop working elsewhere in the community.

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Prof Heneghan said there were now stark differences between diminishing numbers of outbreaks in the community and those around hospitals and care homes. "The asymptomatic issue is something we need to understand because it's completely at odds from the point of view that you have some who aren't affected," he told the Telegraph.

"Areas where you've got densely populated people are always going to be difficult to eradicate (infections). We learnt that in 2003 with the Sars outbreak. When we have these small pockets of people with symptoms, and I know of hospitals with 20 or 30 cases, we need to have a real and significant strategy with the people that are in contact with them.

"Normally when you have asymptomatics, it would be highly reassuring. The problem remains is that when this gets to the elderly or with conditions it seems to be devastating and why that is we just don't know. If we did, we would have a much better picture on how to treat and who to shield. I think there's a need to urgently investigate the asymptomatics to find out what's going on."