The health secretary said the government’s testing programme would be expanded to include other critical workers on the front line who require it, including prison staff, the judiciary and benefits advisers.
Only NHS staff, social care workers and patients had previously been eligible for testing, prompting concerns that key workers in other sectors have been needlessly self-isolating or unknowingly infecting people with the virus.
Mr Hancock told the Commons Health Committee: “I know the history of testing is going to be a long debated subject. What really matters is what we’re going to do from here on in.
“And what I can tell you is that today we are able to expand the eligibility for testing, which is currently for patients, for surveys and for NHS and social care staff, and some that go to LRFs [local resilience forums] for local urgent need.
“I can today expand the eligibility for testing to police, the fire service, prison staff, critical local-authority staff, the judiciary and DWP staff who need it, and we’re able to do that because of the scale-up of testing.”
As of midday on Thursday, 18,665 tests had been conducted in the previous 24 hours, Mr Hancock told MPs.
He said: “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.”
Union leaders previously called for priority testing for firefighters to prevent staffing levels plummeting to “dangerously low levels”.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, welcomed the move but said it was “a shame it has come this late”, with nearly 3,000 fire-and-rescue staff across the UK currently in self-isolation because of Covid-19.
He said: “We are awaiting further details, but it is clear that there are questions around the functioning of the scheme that is now open to more key workers.
“The health secretary said fewer NHS staff were coming forward to be tested than hoped, but this is surely an issue of accessibility rather than frontline staff not wanting to be tested.
“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 health secretary’s announcement comes amid mounting questions over testing capacity for frontline staff, with the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, Dame Donna Kinnair, telling the committee that some nurses were driving for two hours to testing centres only to be turned away if they did not have an appointment.
Mr Hancock admitted that the number of NHS staff who have come forward to be tested for the virus has been lower than expected.
He said: “You’ll understand why we had a priority order for the use of the test where it was patients first, then NHS staff.
“Frankly, the number of NHS staff coming forward wasn’t as high as expected and therefore we extended it very quickly both to residents and staff in social care.
“But because capacity is going up sharply, I’m therefore able to expand it further and we’ll expand it again as soon as the capacity is there to make sure that that capacity is used up.”
Elsewhere, a student doctor working as a swab tester said the scaled-up capacity at his centre in Milton Keynes was “being wasted”.
Gianmarco Raddi, a molecular biologist at Cambridge University, wrote in The Guardian: “Our shifts were meant to be excruciating 12-hour marathons. In reality, they are rather more like laidback morning jogs.
“Dozens of academics and laboratory personnel from all over the UK languish in a hotel with nothing to do.
“Millions of pounds of equipment borrowed from universities and companies rests silently in the evening hours, when the noise of our collective toil should be deafening.”
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