Rapid testing for people without symptoms of coronavirus will be made available across the country this week, the government has said.
The Department for Health and Social (DHSC) said expanding the Community Testing Programme to more people without symptoms is “crucial given that around one in three people” who contract Covid-19 are asymptomatic.
Lateral flow tests, which can return results in as little as 30 minutes, are at the heart of the programme, the eligibility of which has now been “expanded to cover all 317 local authorities”, DHSC said.
DHSC said councils will be encouraged to test those unable to work from home during lockdown – a move likely to include police officers, supermarket workers and taxi drivers.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said targeted asymptomatic testing followed by isolation was “highly effective in breaking chains of transmission”.
But doctor Angela Raffle, a consultant in public health with the University of Bristol Medical School, said increasing lateral flow testing “is very worrying”.
“Any benefit from finding symptomless cases will be outweighed by the many more infectious cases that are missed by these tests,” she said.
“Already outbreaks are known to have occurred because people have been falsely reassured by a negative lateral flow result, leading them to attend work whilst having symptoms.”
She said it was “dangerously misleading” for the Government to claim such tests were hugely successful.
“It could undermine the already struggling test and trace system, because people are likely to choose to get a lateral flow test rather than attending for PCR when they have symptoms,” she added.
Mr Hancock said: “With roughly a third of people who have coronavirus not showing symptoms, targeted asymptomatic testing and subsequent isolation is highly effective in breaking chains of transmission. Rapid, regular testing is led by local authorities who design programmes based on their in-depth knowledge of the local populations, so testing can have the greatest impact.
“We are now expanding this offer to every local authority across the country, and asking testing to be targeted on workers who cannot work from home during this national lockdown, while asking employers to work with us to scale up workforce testing.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people aged 80 and over are being invited to book a vaccine at the new NHS vaccination centres that open this week.
NHS England said the first 130,000 letters began arriving on doormats this weekend with more than 500,000 following this week, with the national vaccination programme “rapidly accelerating”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “With covid cases at record levels and a tragic number of people losing their lives to this vicious disease, we are once again asking everyone to stay at home in order to stop its spread and protect our NHS.
“Our plan is to vaccinate as many people as possible across the entire United Kingdom as quickly as we can. And with more than 1,000 vaccination sites across the country, including seven new mass vaccination centres, we will help protect hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people over the coming weeks as we accelerate towards offering 12 million people the jab in England by the middle of February.
“There are deeply challenging weeks ahead, but today signals another significant step forward in the race to protect the public, and defeat the virus.”