NHS frontline staff will start to be tested next week in a move aimed at boosting the workforce and allow those self-isolating with illnesses other than coronavirus to return to work.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, said the tests would initially be focused on those working in intensive care, A&E, GP practices and staff running ambulance services.

It comes after health professionals told MPs on the Commons health and social care committee on Thursday that rotas were under strain due to the numbers of staff forced to stay at home as a result of following Government advice when showing Covid-19 symptoms, such as a temperature or cough.

Speaking at a press conference at Downing Street, Sir Simon said: "I can say that today we can announce we will be rolling out staff testing across the NHS, beginning next week and starting with the critical care nurses, other staff in intensive care, emergency departments, ambulance services, GPs.

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"And as the testing volumes increase, we want to widen that to a wider range of essential public service workers, including our social care services, as well as continuing of course with our patient testing which is so vital."

The Government has confirmed the service will be free and would "help end the uncertainty of whether NHS staff need to stay at home".

Those who test negative for coronavirus will be able to return to work, said the Department for Health and Social Care.

The Government hopes to open a laboratory to analyse samples this weekend, with the focus to be on carrying out about 800 tests at designated sites in hot-spot areas such as London and then scaled up as the weeks go on.

Companies involved in administering and processing the tests include Amazon, Boots and Royal Mail, while the Wellcome Trust and universities will also help to increase testing capacity for frontline workers.

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Thermo Fisher Scientific and Randox laboratories, which make the testing kits, will provide logistical and technical support.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has been diagnosed with coronavirus, said: "We want to save lives, protect the most vulnerable, and relieve pressure on our NHS.

"Healthcare staff are key in our fight against the virus and I want to ensure that any frontline NHS or care worker who has symptoms of coronavirus or who has a family member with symptoms can be tested quickly and reliably."

Seb James, UK and Ireland managing director of Boots, said the high street chain would assist in delivering tests but confirmed they would not be done in-store.

"We will work with the NHS to recruit trained professionals – both Boots colleagues and from the wider community," he said.

"I am sure there will be many trained healthcare clinicians and students who will step forward to support our dedicated NHS colleagues.

"Locations are being defined but will be spread across the UK – they will not however be in Boots stores, allowing our colleagues to focus on supporting our customers and patients."

Rico Back, the Royal Mail Group's chief executive, said: "We will safely deliver these vital tests, a key step forward in the nation's battle against the virus."

The British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine told MPs this week that it was "counter-intuitive" not to test frontline staff.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA, told MPs via video link: "At this time of year, it is estimated that 10% of the population could have a symptom of a temperature or a cough in a non-Covid situation.

"We had situations where many GP practices and hospitals were understaffed, the staff themselves who were self-isolating were telling us they felt able to work but were following the guidance, and that if they were able to be tested they would come back to work.

"It seems counter-intuitive that we are reducing our workforce when we need our NHS workforce the most."