Coronavirus testing will be offered from today to everyone over five years old who has symptoms, the government has announced.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock unveiled the huge expansion in eligibility in the latest step to prepare for easing lockdown.
He told the House of Commons: “Everyone aged 5 and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test.That applies right across the UK in all four nations from now.”
It is the latest expansion in eligibility, three weeks after testing was extended to over-65s or people who need to leave home for work, with symptoms.
While Mr Hancock did not make an explicit link, it comes days before the government hopes to reopen primary schools for millions of pupils in England.
But his announcement was made after long initial delays in rolling out testing. And it came hours after it emerged a “track and trace” app has been delayed to the “coming weeks”, from its original date of mid-May.
The app – alongside an army of human ‘contact tracers’ – will be crucial in preventing a new outbreak of the virus, by flagging when users have had contact with a Covid-19 sufferer.
Yet Downing Street today suggested it might only roll out after the next stage of lockdown easing from June 1 has already begun.
Anyone with any of three symptoms, one of which is new, must self-isolate for at least seven days while their household must isolate for 14 days.
The symptoms now include not only a cough or fever but also anosmia – a loss or change of your sense of taste or smell.
Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth fumed: “Many healthcare specialists were making these warnings eight weeks ago.”
Meanwhile experts have admitted the slow rollout of testing hampered the UK’s early ability to fight the virus.
Widespread community testing was withdrawn in March when capacity simply wasn’t big enough, and has taken more than two months to restore.
Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar, a scientific advisor to the government, said last week it was a mistake to drop widespread testing. He said: “We must learn the lessons of why this epidemic got out of control in February and March. And we must not allow that mistake to be happening in May, June and July.”
Speaking in the House of Commons today, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth also slammed the treatment of people in care homes.
Care home residents and staff couldn’t routinely get tested until April 15 – despite Mr Hancock claiming a “protective ring” was placed around them.
And No10 today admitted at least 37.5% of care homes have had an outbreak – 5,546 of them.
Mr Ashworth demanded the June 6 date for testing all care home staff and residents, even without symptoms, is brought forward. He said: “Why can we not have that date sooner?”
It came hours after a row over the launch date of the ‘test, track and trace’ programme to contain any new outbreaks of the virus.
The app, which is central to the government’s programme for containing the virus while lockdown eases, was originally due to launch by mid-May.
But Boris Johnson’s official spokesman today said that the app would now be coming “within weeks”.
The UK has however managed to hire 21,000 human ‘contract tracers’ who’ll work alongside the app.
At the weekend the figure was 17,000, and Mr Hancock had set himself a target of 18,000 by this week.
Sources said all 21,000 would work as contact tracers despite the original lower target.
Mr Hancock said the 21,000 include 7,500 healthcare professionals, who will lead on particularly dangerous clusters like those in care homes, and advise the other workers who are call handlers on minimum wage.
The trainers have been given “rigorous training” and were praised by Mr Hancock for “stepping up to serve their country in its hours of need”.
He added: “I’m perfectly prepared to hire more to make sure we have spare capacity within contact tracing.”
Meanwhile the government has set a target of 200,000 tests per day by the end of May. But the target is for capacity – not the number of tests carried out.