Coronavirus testing is set to be rolled out to a range of key workers, including the police, the fire service, prison staff and some civil servants, the government has confirmed.
Previously only NHS staff and hospital patients were able to get a test, but following pressure from the public and trade unions, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons Health Committee that eligibility for, and access to, testing would be widened.
Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, welcomed the move, but noted that it was “a shame it has come this late”, pointing to the nearly 3,000 fire-and-rescue staff across the UK currently taking self-isolation measures because of Covid-19.
While capacity for testing had risen “sharply”, Hancock admitted that not as many members of NHS staff had come forward for tests as had been anticipated.
According to government figures, 21,328 tests were carried out on Thursday despite there having been capacity for at least 38,000.
Wrack suggested that if fewer tests were being undertaken, it was more likely an issue of access rather than one relating to willingness on the part of key workers. He said: “Many of the testing centres are far out of town and require extended trips in a car – if this is a barrier to nursing staff, it will also be a barrier to other key workers.”
The UK reported 847 new deaths related to Covid-19 in hospitals on Thursday, bringing the country’s total up to 14,576 since the outbreak began. This figure does not include the hundreds more people who have died in care homes and the wider community.
Presented with concerns about the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers on the coronavirus frontline, Hancock said he “would love to be able to wave a magic wand” to increase supply. “But given that we have a global situation in which there is less PPE in the world than the world needs, obviously it’s going to be a huge pressure point.”
The MP for West Suffolk insisted that the government was doing everything it could “to get that PPE to the frontline”.