Essential workers in non–health care roles will be able to request tests for the coronavirus from Friday, the health secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
Hancock, speaking at the UK government’s daily coronavirus update, said the testing regime is now being opened up to all essential workers in England — such as teachers, social workers, and bus drivers — and members of their households.
The vast expansion of the testing regime comes just a week before the health secretary's ambitious, arbitrary deadline of 100,000 tests per day across the whole country and despite concerns that many frontline health care staff have not yet been tested.
From today, employers will be able to apply on the government website, GOV.UK, to have any essential staff tested, Hancock said. From Friday, those essential workers will be able to apply on the website directly.
Until now, testing had been reserved for people in hospitals and care homes infected with COVID-19 and frontline NHS and social care staff. But the government decided to expand testing after increasing the capacity from around 41,000 to 51,000 tests per day “overnight”, the health secretary said.
Hancock said it was a step towards implementing a "rigorous programme of test, track and trace" that will be essential to ending the public lockdown without another spike in infections.
Professor John Newton, who is leading the testing programme, told the press conference: “We are currently on track to reach 100,000 tests per day as planned. In fact, we’re somewhat ahead of where we thought we’d be at this stage.”
But Hancock's original promise was for 100,000 tests to be carried out a day, rather than the overall capacity. As of 9am Thursday, the UK figure for tests per day was 23,560, well short of both the capacity and Hancock's target.
The expansion of testing to all key workers comes amid concerns that many frontline workers in the NHS and care homes who are dealing with people infected by COVID-19 are still struggling to get tested. BuzzFeed News reported on Thursday, before the press conference, that some staff have been told they had to travel long distances to get to testing centres while others had not heard back after asking for referrals.
Scientists told BuzzFeed News that, regardless of whether Hancock’s arbitrary target is met, the government had left it too late to ramp up testing and that valuable time had been wasted.
Under the expansion, the number of regional drive-thru centres will be increased from 31 to 48. Mobile testing centres, developed by the army, will also be used, particularly for care homes, Hancock said.
Hancock said the government is also planning to recruit 18,000 people to help track who people infected with the virus may have passed it on to.
The criteria for essential workers will be based on the guidelines provided to schools at the start of the lockdown, Hancock said. That included a wide range of occupations, including roles in key public services, transportation, food production, national security, and finance, as well as journalists covering the pandemic.
Hancock said essential workers who need a test will be able to enter their details directly on the GOV.UK website, and will then get a response by text or email. After they’ve been tested, they will get their results sent to them digitally. There will be no charge for the process.