NEW coronavirus tests will arrive in the UK in the coming days, the Health Secretary has said.
Matt Hancock also said that "home is now the frontline" in the country's national effort to tackle the coronavirus.
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Speaking to MPs in the House of Commons today, Mr Hancock said the government had bought "millions of coronavirus tests".
However, he was unable to say exactly when they would be made available to the public.
He explained: "We are ramping up testing as fast as we can, including buying millions of tests.
"My team is currently buying these tests, we'll make them available as quickly as possible."
Pressed for clarity
His predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, expressed his concerns after the government promised to increase daily testing from 5,000 to 25,000 – and pushed for a clearer date.
The former health and social care secretary said: "The concern is that we appear to be testing on a daily basis virtually no more people than over a week ago when the commitment was to increase the daily amount of tests from 5,000 to 25,000 tests.
"And given that this is a vital part of the success of the suppression strategies in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, can he give us an estimated date when we will get back to routine Covid-19 testing in the community of all suspected cases?
We have now purchased millions of these tests which are arriving in the next days and weeks
"Because even if that's three, four weeks away, a date means there's a plan and without a date, people won't be confident that this really is the plan."
Mr Hancock responded: "I'm not going to give him [Mr Hunt] such a date today because we are in the middle of buying the tests that are needed and especially the new tests that have just come on stream.
"I have been able to give him the update that we have now purchased millions of these tests which are arriving in the next days and weeks and I'll be in a position to give him a more concrete timetable and make sure he gets that as soon as we can make it public."
The Government has been working to ramp up the number of tests that can be carried out, amid widespread concern that the UK has no clear idea of how many people have coronavirus.
NHS workers are also calling for tests, with some forced into isolation under current rules when a negative test would enable them to go back to work.
Currently, coronavirus tests are only being given to those in hospitals or frontline staff – everyone else is asked to self-isolate at home if they experience minor symptoms.
The tests also are only able to detect whether someone has the virus and not whether they have already recovered.
But the government is said to have an antibody test ready and hope to make it available soon.
It comes as a leaked Number 10 email sent to research institutes suggests the Government asking as late as Sunday to borrow equipment to ramp up testing.
Reported by the Politico website, the email includes a plea from Prime Minister Boris Johnson to borrow or buy equipment for testing, saying there are "no machines left to buy".
But today, the Government denied that it had waited until Sunday to ask private sector firms and other institutions for support in boosting testing capacity, insisting that efforts had been going on for weeks.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It's no secret that we are rapidly scaling up our efforts to boost testing capacity to protect the vulnerable, to support our NHS and to save lives.
"Together with Public Health England and the NHS we are exploring how we can work across industry and academic sectors to establish viable options which will significantly ramp up the number of tests we can carry out."
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Earlier, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said testing NHS staff for Covid-19 is now one of the "biggest issues that needs resolution" according to hospital leaders.
Mr Hopson tweeted: "It's striking how many trust CEOs are telling us today that staff testing is vital and they feel that it's now one of the biggest issues that needs resolution if they are to properly support staff in the way they want to, and they believe is appropriate.
"Trusts are losing a lot of staff due to numbers in vulnerable groups (eg pregnancy and over 70) and those with household cases having to self-isolate.
"This is having a significant impact on trusts' ability to provide the right quality of care at the front line.
"Trusts are doing all they can to work round this – eg putting up staff who haven't actually been in contact with Covid family members in hotels and reassigning vulnerable groups to other work.
"But maximising the numbers of staff on the frontline is vital."
Mr Hopson said the NHS would reach 10,000 tests a day this week but called for clarity from "national NHS leaders" about what priority should be given to patient or staff testing and the reasons why.
Dr Sarah Hallett, who works in the paediatrics department at a hospital in London, is self-isolating because she has a cough.
Her flatmates, a trainee GP and an emergency medicine junior doctor, have also had to isolate for 14 days even though they are showing no symptoms.
Stuck at home
She said: "I completely understand and support the self-isolating and social distancing measures announced by the Government.
"The frustration for health workers though is that if testing was available, it might get us back to working with our patients so much quicker.
"This is especially true for my flatmates, both of whom are well and could be off work completely unnecessarily.
"All of us would rather be helping with this crisis than stuck at home."
The Royal College of Nursing's chief executive, Dame Donna Kinnair, also said there was an urgent need "to know what we're dealing with".
She said: "The Government has certainly recognised from about a week and a half ago there is a need to increase testing to 25,000 a day.
"I'm not sure we'll achieve that by this side of Easter. But within that 25,000, it would give us headroom to ensure staff are tested."
Last night, the Prime Minister ordered people only to leave their homes under a list of "very limited purposes", banned public gatherings of more than two people and ordered the closure of non-essential shops.
In an address to the nation from Downing Street on Monday evening, Mr Johnson ordered people to only leave their homes to shop for basic necessities "as infrequently as possible", and to only perform one form of exercise a day.
They can also seek medical help, provide care to a vulnerable person or travel to work if "absolutely necessary", under the measures to last until at least Easter Monday.
A failure to follow the rules could see police dispersing gatherings and imposing fines, which Government officials said would start at £30.
After the UK death toll hit 335, the PM ordered the immediate closure of non-essential stores including those selling electronics and clothing.
The Prime Minister also ordered a ban on all public gatherings of more than two people – other than those they live with.
Other premises to join pubs and restaurants in being closed are libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms, places of worship and hotels.
Parks will remain open for exercise, but all social events including weddings and baptisms will be stopped. Funerals can continue.
Mr Johnson said the measures will be "under constant review" and will be considered for relaxation in three weeks if the evidence allows.
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