Millions of key workers and their families will be able to book free coronavirus test

Hancock announces plans to recruit 18,000 people to trace coronavirus infections

People queueing  to enter a  store in Brixton, south London. Photograph:  Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images

People queueing to enter a store in Brixton, south London. Photograph: Niklas Halle’n/AFP via Getty Images

 

Millions of key workers and their families will be able to book a free coronavirus test online from Friday in a major expansion of testing in England. The move comes as Britain prepares to restart contact tracing for the virus, which it abandoned during the early weeks of the epidemic.

Health secretary Matt Hancock, who has set a goal of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, told a press conference in Downing Street that daily testing capacity had reached 50,000.

“Because capacity has now increased so substantially we are now able to expand who can get the tests. Our ultimate goal is that everyone who could benefit from a test gets a test,” he said.

The British government estimates that about 10 million people could be eligible for the tests, which companies will also be able to book on behalf of their employees.

Some of Britain’s drive-through testing centres have been underused, but John Newton, who is leading the testing strategy, said more mobile units would help the system to reach the target of 100,000 tests a day. “We’re going to have 48 of these pop-up facilities which can travel around the country to where they’re needed most–for example, in care homes.”

Mr Hancock also announced plans to recruit 18,000 people to trace coronavirus infections, promising to roll out contact tracing infrastructure on a large scale. 

“Test, track and trace, done effectively, can help to suppress the transmission in a way that allows you then to have lesser rules,” he said.

“Critically, test, track and trace works more effectively when the rate of new cases is lower. So the lower the rate of new cases, the more effectively you can keep it down using test, track and trace rather than having to use heavier social-distancing measures.”

Variations

A total of 18,738 people have died from coronavirus in hospitals in Britain, an increase of 638 reported deaths since Wednesday. Chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said that although the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths was falling or flattening, there were regional variations across the country.

“I think London is ahead of the rest of the country maybe by a couple of weeks, but there is quite a lot of synchrony right across the country, it’s not massively different. I can’t be absolutely sure about this, but I think two or three weeks is the sort of order where you might expect to see some differences across the country.”

Sir Patrick said the government’s scientific advisers were evaluating whether people should wear face masks in public, but that the evidence about their usefulness was “quite variable, quite weak and difficult to know”.