Frontline NHS staff in England will begin being tested this weekend to see if they have coronavirus.
Workers with symptoms or those who live with people who have symptoms will be checked – starting with critical care doctors and nurses.
It follows criticism over a lack of testing for health workers.
Meanwhile, the prime minister and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are self-isolating after testing positive for the virus.
Boris Johnson, 55, said he had experienced mild symptoms over the past 24 hours but would continue to lead the government’s response to the pandemic while working from his Downing Street home. Mr Hancock said his symptoms were also mild and he was working from home.
The number of people who have died with the virus in the UK rose by 181 to 759 on Friday, with 14,543 confirmed cases.
At a Downing Street news conference on Friday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said hundreds of antigen tests – which check whether people currently have the disease – would be given to frontline staff this weekend.
He said testing would be scaled up “dramatically” next week, with testing of ambulance crews, paramedics and GPs expected to follow. It will later be expanded to cover social care staff.
In Wales, frontline NHS staff are already being screened for the virus, while Scotland’s chief medical officer has confirmed a protocol for testing “significant” figures.
Analysis suggests the rate of infection in the UK has been doubling every three to four days, Mr Gove added.
Experts expect the number of cases to continue to increase over the next two to three weeks, before the effects of social distancing measures and restrictions on everyday life begin to have an impact.
It comes as the government updated its guidance on leaving the house to exercise ahead of the weekend, urging people to use “open spaces” near their home where possible and to not travel unnecessarily.
Meanwhile, the editor of medical journal the Lancet has heavily criticised NHS leaders for their failing to heed warning signs from China of the pandemic – and said patients and NHS staff would die unnecessarily as a result.
Richard Horton, who has been a vocal critic of the UK’s coronavirus emergency plans, said February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing, train staff and ensure there was enough personal protective equipment.
The BBC’s medical correspondent Fergus Walsh says those at the top of the NHS and ministers would strongly reject such claims and point to the huge work under way to meet the challenge of the epidemic.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the move towards testing NHS staff in England was “long overdue”.
After critical care doctors and nurses are tested, staff in emergency departments, paramedics and GPs will be checked.
Before the announcement of testing on NHS staff, only seriously ill patients in hospital with flu-like symptoms were being routinely tested for the virus.
Currently, about 6,000 people are tested daily. But by the end of March the government wants to test 10,000 people a day, rising to 25,000 by mid-April.
“For every healthy member of staff at home self-isolating needlessly when they do not have the virus, the NHS is short of someone who could be providing vital care to patients on the frontline,” the BMA’s chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said.
The first of three new laboratories is expected to start operating over the weekend and will initially process around 800 samples, the government said.
The two other labs are currently being set up and will be opening soon.
Dozens of universities, research institutes and companies are lending their equipment for use in the labs.
The samples will be taken in a number of locations around the country, initially focusing on coronavirus hotspots such as London.
Dr James Gill, honorary clinical lecturer at Warwick Medical School, said an antibody test – which sees whether someone has already had coronavirus – could “revolutionise” diagnosis and screening for Covid-19 by providing “a rapid bedside test not that dissimilar to a pregnancy test, or a diabetic’s blood sugar test”.
Earlier this week, the UK government’s chief medical adviser said the antibody tests are being developed.
Niall Dickson, head of the NHS Confederation, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the NHS and social care system is “bracing itself for a massive surge in cases” – but there is a hope of avoiding a surge in demand on the health service if people comply with social distancing rules.
Meanwhile, guidance for health workers on personal protective equipment is expected to be updated within days, following calls for greater clarity.
Mike Adams, from the Royal College of Nursing, said he was “still getting inundated with messages” from staff who are finding PPE is not available, in short supply or there is inconsistent messaging around when to use it.
The prime minister’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, who is several months pregnant, is self-isolating, although it is not known if they are still living together. Pregnant women in their third trimester are advised to be particularly stringent when following social distancing advice, and minimise social contact for up to 12 weeks.
England’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof Chris Whitty, has also shown symptoms and is self-isolating at home.
In other developments:
- County councils are warning residents some services, such as recycling centres or adult education centres, will be significantly scaled back or stopped to prioritise keeping people safe from coronavirus
- The HCSA hospital doctors’ union said potential supply issues should not delay the reported introduction of more stringent guidance on the use of personal protective equipment by frontline NHS staff
- Police forces in England and Wales have fined people for ignoring guidance issued to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
- Mayor Sadiq Khan has warned Londoners there will be “a large number” of deaths and temporary mortuaries will be set up across the capital.
- Two new temporary hospitals will be set up in Birmingham and Manchester to help the NHS cope with the virus
- The Ministry of Justice says 27 prisoners, in 14 prisons, have tested positive.
- Italian restaurant chain Carluccio’s is facing collapse, after warning it is facing permanent branch closures due to coronavirus.
- The Queen’s birthday parade, the Trooping the Colour, will not go ahead in its usual form in June, and other options are being considered
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