Hospitals and labs told to prioritise Covid testing for mental health patients

More than 14,000 patients were being detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act in January 2021, with patients needing to be tested on admission to wards and if they show symptoms.

Coronavirus tests for patients in mental health hospitals should be couriered to testing labs and prioritised for results to prevent patients being forced to self-isolate for longer than is necessary, according to new guidance.

NHS England has told mental health hospitals they need to use dedicated couriers for urgent swabs and tests should be specifically labelled for mental health patients so they can be turned around faster.

Health bosses are worried thousands of patients in mental health wards could deteriorate ifare forced to self-isolate in their rooms for longer periods.

It can mean patients being isolated in their rooms until the test results are known to prevent an outbreak among other patients. This can exacerbate their illness and make recover harder.

In a letter to chief nurses and NHS trusts, NHS England’s national director for mental health, Claire Murdoch said urgent access to test results was important for all mental health and learning disability patients.

As well as dedicated couriers to rush swabs to the labs, hospitals have been told to mark all swabs as urgent included coloured bags and electronically flagging the tests.

Laboratories should be able to process tests within four hours and pathology staff have been told to make sure they can report results electronically as soon as they’re available.

She said: “Timely access to Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 PCR test results (within 24 hours of the sample being taken) can be challenging in some mental health inpatient settings, particularly those without a laboratory site in close geographic proximity. Pathology networks have been building capacity and resilience and we encourage you to work together to ensure speedy access to tests for these vulnerable patients.

“Many of our NHS laboratories can complete sample processing within 15 hours of receipt, and most samples are processed within 24 hours. For many mental health patients, self-isolating for longer than is necessary is detrimental to their recovery, adding to patients’ distress. Timeliness at each part of the testing pathway is crucial.”

The letter, also signed by NHS England’s director of urgent and emergency Pauline Philip, said: “We recognise that all staff are working exceptionally hard, as they have done since the start of the pandemic, and in many cases these principles are already in place.

“However, we are keen to ensure that patients are offered the highest quality of care and that there is parity of esteem across NHS inpatient settings. We request you implement the above recommendations as soon as is practically possible.”

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