Millions of people will soon be able to order a home finger-prick test from Amazon that will tell them if they have had Covid-19, health chiefs have promised.
People could be allowed back to work if they have recovered and tests show they are now immune, Sharon Peacock, director of the national infection service at Public Health England, said.
About 3.5 million antibody tests have been bought and millions more are being ordered with the aim of selling them to the public within days, she told MPs. However, government sources cautioned that the timetable was likely to slip as they decided who should get priority.
Boris Johnson has described the tests as a “total game-changer”, allowing people to know once they are no longer at risk of catching or passing on the virus. Validation of the tests to prove that they work is due to finish this week, Professor Peacock said.
NHS staff could also get access within days to a separate, existing test that tells people if they have the virus at present. A key-worker testing centre has been established in Milton Keynes and can run 100,000 tests a day.
Britain’s testing has lagged behind countries such as Germany and South Korea, with only about 5,600 daily checks. Because those with mild symptoms are no longer checked, NHS staff have had to stay off work for seven days if they get a cough or a fever and stay at home for 14 days if someone in their family is ill. This leaves significant gaps on the front line.
Professor Peacock said that by Monday the NHS would be able to order 11,900 virus tests a day, reaching 25,000 by April 25, all of which will be offered to hospital inpatients.
However, PCR testing machines have been taken from universities and private labs to create a separate capacity for NHS staff. She said this would allow “mass testing of key workers with the antigen, up to 100,000 or more tests a day. Those plans are rapidly rolling out . . . I’d anticipate that in the near future that will be available for key workers”.
Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said that testing of health staff would begin “in the next few days”. He promised a further ramp up, telling LBC: “We need to get to hundreds of thousands of tests a day, and we will do that over the course of the next few weeks and we will be making tests available to NHS staff within the next few days.”
The Amazon antibody test is a separate technology that looks for key markers of the immune response the body mounts to fight off the virus. Antibodies persist in the blood long after the infection is vanquished and Professor Peacock said that the commercial tests the government had ordered could detect them in a droplet drawn from the fingertip.
“Several million tests have been purchased for use. We need to evaluate them in the laboratory, because these are brand new products, to be clear that they work as they are claimed to do so,” she told MPs.
“Once they have been tested, and that will happen this week, and the bulk of the tests arrive, they will be distributed into the community in which there will be a mechanism to order a test via Amazon, performed at home and then sent back to see whether they’re positive or negative.”
Likening the technology to a pregnancy test, Professor Peacock said that it would be simple for people to “read the lines” by eye to know if they had been infected, although another way of administering the test “might require you to go to somewhere like Boots” to have blood checked.
“If you have antibodies you know that you have the infection. It’s not just for key workers it’s for the general population and over time we’re expecting that a proportion of the population would be positive and that would allow them to get back to work,” she said.
“Testing the test is a small matter, and I anticipate that it will be done by the end of this week. In the near future people will be able to order a test that they can test themselves, or go to Boots, or somewhere similar to have their finger-prick test done.”
This would “absolutely” be a matter of days rather than weeks and practical details were being “rapidly resolved”, she pledged.
It is unclear whether key workers would have access first but Professor Peacock said “there would need to be an element of prioritisation”.
However, she added: “I would have thought there would be an absolutely minimal charge if there was a charge. It certainly isn’t going to be charging the public a large amount of money . . . Cost should not be a barrier to people having availability of these tests.”