The UK government has set out ambitious plans for a system of “test, track and trace” as it tries to get a handle on the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
On Thursday Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced: “From today, employers of essential workers will be able to go on GOV.UK to get a test for any of their staff who need a test. And from tomorrow, any essential workers who need a test will be able to book an appointment on GOV.UK themselves directly.”
But the website to book a test directly has already closed applications, on the day it launched.
The government has been coming under significant pressure over its handling of the outbreak, with critics accusing it of being too slow to lockdown, too slow to secure personal protective equipment for health workers, and too slow to roll out wide-scale testing.
The rebuttal from Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – who is currently standing in for Prime Minister Boris Johnson while he recovers from COVID-19 – has been that it has “followed the science”.
The testing regime revealed by Hancock at the daily press conference was supposed to launch the next phase in the government’s response.
Here’s what you need to know…
What has been promised?
Alongside a target of carrying out 100,000 tests each day by the end of April, the government launched its strategy to immediately extend testing to all essential workers in England who have symptoms of coronavirus.
Essential workers include NHS and care staff, teachers, hospital cleaners, public servants, the emergency services, supermarket staff and delivery drivers.
Supposedly essential workers should be able to enter their details on the newly launched government website, and receive a text or email on the same day inviting them to book an appointment at one of the 30 drive-through sites currently open across the country, or receive a home testing kit.
The government claims test results from drive-throughs will be sent out within 48 hours, and within 72 hours of collection of the home delivery tests.
A “network of new mobile testing units is being rapidly established” the government adds, to allow places with demand for testing to access testing.
The home delivery service of tests started today, in partnership with delivery firms including Royal Mail and Amazon.
“The availability of home testing kits will initially be limited, but more will become available soon.” the website adds.
The idea is to allow essential workers to get back to work quicker if they have had to stop working due to showing symptoms of coronavirus. The testing also applies to members of their household.
How has it gone so far?
Clicking on the “book a test directly” link on the government’s website brings up a webpage saying “applications closed”.
“You can’t currently register for a COVID-19 test,” it adds.
The Department of Health apologised and attributed the closure to “significant demand”.
Hancock set the aim of carrying out 100,000 tests by the end of April. Dominic Raab said at PMQs on Wednesday that progress was being made, with testing capacity up to 40,000 per day. But as of Thursday, just 14,629 tests were actually carried out.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Friday morning, Hancock said he thought the government would hit the 100,000 target, but added “nothing’s guaranteed in life”.
How does testing work?
The test involves taking a swab of the nose and the back of the throat, which can be done by the person themselves or by someone else.
Tests should be available in the following ways
- Regional drive-through testing sites: the government is aiming to open 50 by the end of the month
- Home testing: Kits delivered to your door, to allow people to test themselves and their family at home. “Home test kit availability will be initially limited,” says the government
- Mobile testing units: Travelling units to offer tests where they are needed – however these are still “being developed”
- Satellite centres: Test kits sent to places like hospitals that have an urgent need
- NHS facilities: Testing available for patients and some NHS workers
Watch the UK government’s video explainer for critical workers here