All care home residents and staff in England are to be eligible for coronavirus testing, regardless of whether they have symptoms, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.
From Wednesday all those over 65 and people who must leave home for work will also be able to get a test if they are displaying symptoms.
Daily testing capacity is now up to 73,400, Mr Hancock said.
He said the government was “on track” for 100,000 tests a day by May.
Earlier this month, testing eligibility was expanded to allow all essential workers in England to register for tests on the government’s website, if they or a family member have virus symptoms.
However, the test booking website temporarily closed hours after opening following “exceptional demand”.
Speaking at the government’s daily news conference, Mr Hancock said: “Building on successful pilots, we will be rolling out testing of asymptomatic residents and staff in care homes in England, and to patients and staff in the NHS.
“This will mean that anyone who is working or living in a care home will be able to get access to a test whether they have symptoms or not.”
And he said certain workers and their families would also be able to access tests.
“From construction workers to emergency plumbers, from research scientists to those in manufacturing, the expansion of access to testing will protect the most vulnerable and help keep people safe”, he said.
The health secretary’s announcement comes as figures show a third of all coronavirus deaths in England and Wales are now happening in care homes.
‘Massive expansion in testing’
This represents a massive expansion of who is eligible for testing – and means we are now one step away from allowing everyone to access a test if they have symptoms.
That will be crucial when lockdown restrictions are eased as part of the “test, track and trace” strategy to keep coronavirus at bay.
It is being made possible by the roll-out of home-testing kits and mobile units staffed by the army.
The problems experienced getting more people tested have – to some extent – been because the network of drive-through testing centres have not always been in convenient locations.
There is plenty of lab capacity to process the tests now the three mega labs are up-and-running in Milton Keynes, Glasgow and Cheshire.
The expansion has also allowed the government to do something that could prove crucial in tackling the epidemic in care homes – the testing of residents and staff without symptoms.
A big concern is that the virus has been able to get a foothold in care homes via people transmitting it before they develop symptoms or if they are asymptomatic.
But promising something is one thing – delivering it is another.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said all patients over 70 who are admitted to hospital for any reason will now be tested for Covid-19.
In Northern Ireland, testing has begun in some GP practices and will also be expanded in hospitals and care homes.
Wales has adopted a needs-based approach to testing for NHS and “critical” non-NHS workers.
Office for National Statistics data showed there were 2,000 coronavirus care home deaths in England and Wales in the week ending 17 April, double the previous week. It brings the total number of deaths in care homes linked to the virus since the start of the pandemic to 3,096.
Coronavirus deaths in hospitals across the UK, have reached 21,678 – a rise of 586 from Monday.