Twice-weekly Covid tests for all in England to stop outbreaks 'in their tracks'

5 April 2021, 00:01 | Updated: 5 April 2021, 21:14

Rapid lateral flow tests will be offered to everyone in England twice a week from Friday.
Rapid lateral flow Covid-19 tests will be offered to everyone in England twice a week from Friday. Picture: PA

By Joe Cook

Everyone in England will be offered two free rapid Covid-19 tests per week, as part of new measures to curb outbreaks as lockdown eases, the government has announced.

So far, Covid testing for people without symptoms has only been available for those most at risk or who need to leave home for work, including NHS staff.

This will change from Friday, with everyone in England able to order regular rapid tests online, or collect them from a workplace, school, or local test site.

Pharmacies will also offer free boxes of seven tests to use twice a week, under a new "pharmacy collect" service that will be launched.

Boris Johnson said the rollout of lateral flow tests - which provide results in around 30 minutes - will help stop outbreaks of coronavirus "in their tracks" as rules ease.

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A package of seven NHS Test and Trace Covid-19 self-testing kits, similar to that which will be handed out by pharmacies.
A package of seven NHS Test and Trace Covid-19 self-testing kits, similar to that which will be handed out by pharmacies. Picture: PA
Secondary school students have already been offered twice weekly lateral flow tests.
Secondary school students have already been offered twice weekly lateral flow tests. Picture: PA

Ahead of an announcement on Monday evening - when he is expected to give more information on the plans - the prime minister said: "As we continue to make good progress on our vaccine programme and with our road map to cautiously easing restrictions under way, regular rapid testing is even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted."

The government hopes the wider rollout of the mass testing will also help them identify and suppress new Covid variants as lockdown restrictions are eased.

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The weekly tests will not replace the "gold-standard" PCR tests for those with symptoms, but are aimed at weeding out asymptomatic carriers of the virus who may not know they are infectious.

More than 120,000 positive cases have already been identified through the use of lateral flow testing, according to government figures.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said while the vaccine programme "has been a shot in the arm for the whole country.... reclaiming our lost freedoms and getting back to normal hinges on us all getting tested regularly".

He added: "Around one in three people who have Covid-19 show no symptoms, and as we reopen society and resume parts of life we have all dearly missed, regular rapid testing is going to be fundamental in helping us quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks.

"The British public have shown over the last year that they quickly adapt and always do what is right in the interest of public health, and I know they will do their bit by getting tested regularly in the months ahead."

Labour have welcome the new testing plan but said it must be "backed up by financial support so sick people can isolate".

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The army helped coordinate the mass testing pilot in Liverpool in November.
The army helped coordinate the mass testing pilot in Liverpool in November. Picture: PA

The new mass testing program is not the only change that will come this week, as England prepares for the next relaxation of lockdown rules - currently expected on 12 April.

From 8 April, the NHS Covid-19 app will also be updated, requiring everyone in a group to check in when entering a hospitality venue, rather than just one person.

The app will now additionally require users who test positive to share their venue history in a "privacy-protecting way" via the program, the government said.

Those who have been at a venue on the same day as several others who have since tested positive for Covid-19 will receive an alert advising them to book a test immediately, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms.

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It comes as Boris Johnson is set to reveal controversial plans for a "vaccine passport" scheme to enable the safe return of mass gatherings and indoor events.

A number of trial events are being planned over the coming months as the government considers ways to reopen venues such as football grounds and nightclubs without the requirement for social distancing measures.

The PM said ministers are doing "everything we can" to enable the return of large-scale events.

However, the proposals will be closely scrutinised by MPs with many deeply suspicious about using "Covid status certifications" domestically.