Coronavirus testing to be rolled out to more public service staff

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Coronavirus testing will be rolled out to people working in public services such as police, fire and prison staff, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.

Capacity was rising “sharply” but not as many NHS staff had come forward for tests as had been expected, he said.

The government said 21,328 tests were carried out on Thursday but there had been capacity for at least 38,000.

The UK recorded 847 new coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals on Thursday, taking the total to 14,576.

The figure does not include hundreds more who have died in care homes and the community.

Speaking by videolink to an online meeting of the Commons health committee, Mr Hancock said the government had prioritised testing for hospital patients and NHS workers before expanding it to residents and staff in social care.

He added some 50,000 NHS workers had been tested so far.

However, he said it was “frustrating” there was capacity for 10,000 more tests a day than were carried out on Thursday.

The government has a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.

Eligibility for testing will also be expanded to critical local authority workers, the judiciary and Department for Work and Pensions staff, he said.

“We’re able to do that because of the scale-up of testing,” he added.

Mr Hancock said he hoped anyone with symptoms would be able to be tested “relatively soon”.

“Now we’ve got the curve under control, I want to be able to get back to the position that we can test everybody with symptoms – and I anticipate being able to do that relatively soon because we’re increasing capacity, as I say,” he said.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, welcomed the expansion of testing.

However, he added: “It is a shame it has come this late, with thousands of firefighters already self-isolating – this is something that could have been easily avoided.”

Mr Wrack said there were also issues around how accessible testing was, with many testing centres far out of town.

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, told the committee some sick NHS workers were compelled to drive for up to two hours to be tested.

Amid continuing concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line workers, Mr 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,” he told the committee.

He added that the government was doing everything it could “to get that PP to the front line”.

‘Further waves’

Meanwhile, Prof Anthony Costello, the director of University College London’s Institute for Global Health, has said there could be 40,000 deaths in the UK as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Also speaking to the committee via videolink, he said the UK had been “too slow” to react on a number of fronts to the crisis which may lead to it having “probably the highest death rates in Europe”.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, has previously said it would be a “good outcome” if total UK deaths could be kept below 20,000.

Warning that the UK would face “further waves” of the virus, Prof Costello said a system needed to be put in place that “cannot just do a certain number of tests in the laboratory” but one that reached out at “district and community level”.

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