Everyone aged five and over is now eligible to be tested for coronavirus if they are showing symptoms, which have been expanded to included a loss of taste or smell.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock drastically increased the number of people who can get tested for Covid-19 across the UK on Monday, with the Government trying to track the spread of the disease in order to ease the lockdown.
His announcement in the House of Commons came after the UK’s chief medical officers added the loss of, or noticeable change to, taste and smell to the NHS’s list of coronavirus symptoms, weeks after experts first raised concerns that cases were being missed.
Anyone suffering the newly-added symptoms, or a continuous cough or high fever, should self-isolate for seven days to risk the spread of infection, and anyone they live with should stay home for 14 days.
Previously only essential workers, the over-65s and individuals who live with them could apply for coronavirus testing on the NHS website if they were showing symptoms.
Mr Hancock said he was “expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before” as ministers try to hit the new goal of having the ability to carry out 200,000 tests per day by the end of the month.
“I can announce to the House that everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test,” he told MPs. “That applies right across the UK in all four nations from now.”
The Department of Health confirmed later on Monday that children aged under five who are showing symptoms will be offered tests when early years settings reopen, meaning it would be from June 1 at the earliest.
Mr Hancock also said that 21,000 contact tracers, including 7,500 health care professionals, had been recruited in England to help track people who have come into contact with infected individuals.
The tracers will advise them whether they need to enter self-isolation in an effort to drive down the spread of the virus.
Along with the NHS app being “successfully piloted”, Mr Hancock said ministers now have the “elements we need to roll out” the test and trace programme.
But he said the Government is “perfectly prepared to hire more” tracers after surpassing the target of employing 18,000.
Downing Street said earlier that the app would be up and running in the coming weeks in England, even though Mr Hancock said last week it would be rolled out in mid May.
Regarding symptoms, until now the NHS 111 coronavirus symptom checker has only listed high temperature and cough as the symptoms that require further action.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, told reporters adding loss of smell and taste to the list would mean 94% of cases where people have symptoms are now picked up, a rise from 91% previously.
It comes after a study led by Professor Tim Spector at King’s College London found that 59% of Covid-19-positive patients reported loss of smell and taste, compared with only 18% of those who tested negative for the disease.
Speaking about the findings on April 1, Prof Spector called for the rules to change, saying those with a loss of smell or taste needed to self-isolate.
On Monday he heavily criticised the Government’s stance so far, saying infected people had been encouraged back to work due to a failure to track symptoms properly.
He said between 100,000 and 200,000 cases had been missed.
He blamed Public Health England (PHE) and the wider strategy, saying an insistence that only fever and cough were the major symptoms had missed thousands of cases.
He said: “We list about 14 symptoms which we know are related to having a positive swab test.
“These are not being picked up by the NHS. This country is missing them all and not only underestimating cases, but also putting people at risk and continuing the epidemic.”
Speaking after the change, Prof Spector said his team believe close to half of people who go on to test positive for Covid-19 never develop a fever or a cough and more symptoms should be added.
It comes as:
– A decision on whether schools will return next month is likely to be made this week, Downing Street hinted.
– Coronavirus outbreaks have been reported in almost four in 10 care homes in England, according to Number 10, as the UK death toll passed 41,500.
– Plans to impose a 14-day quarantine on international travellers arriving in the UK will be reviewed every three weeks, Downing Street said.
– Outdoor gatherings of up to six people who do not share a household were given the go-ahead in Northern Ireland in a significant scaling back of coronavirus restrictions, including drive-through cinemas, concerts and religious worship.
ENT UK, the professional membership body representing ear, nose and throat surgery in the UK, said it had first warned that loss of smell and taste were symptoms of coronavirus eight weeks ago, saying it had shared those details with PHE.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) listed loss of smell and taste as “less common symptoms” several weeks ago and other countries, including the US, added the symptom.
Despite these warnings, Prof Van-Tam said on April 3 that the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) had looked at the issue and concluded loss of smell or taste should not be added to the UK’s symptom list.
But on Monday, that guidance was changed, with Prof Van-Tam saying advisers had needed to look at the issue in detail.
He said scientists had had to “work out very carefully” how valid loss of taste or smell were in counting cases and where in the course of an illness the symptoms might occur.
He said establishing how adding the symptom to the list could help pick up more cases had been “quite a difficult piece of science”.
Prof Van-Tam told reporters at the daily Number 10 press briefing that just 0.44% of 229 laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases reported loss of smell on its own as a symptom.
He also said that only once there was a vaccine that is “really capable of suppressing disease levels” will the country be “out of this”.
He added: “So from that perspective we may have to live, and learn to live, with this virus in the long-term, certainly for many months to come if not several years.
Prof Van-Tam also told the briefing the UK testing programme needed to be “bigger and faster”.
He added: “We are sending a clear message as scientists that it needs to be fast and we need to work as hard as we can to improve the timeliness of the testing system as we go along.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon welcomed the expansion of testing, adding: “This is vital in order to keep transmission in communities low.”