Everyone in England will be able to take a free rapid Covid test twice a week, under a new testing regime launching on Friday.
The government says the tests, which will be available to everyone regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, will “stop outbreaks in their tracks” as the vaccine rollout continues.
News of the policy comes ahead of an announcement by Boris Johnson on Monday, which will outline the extent to which the UK will make use of Covid “passports” – both at home and for international travel.
Mr Johnson has previously suggested the certificates could carry information on whether someone has been tested, in addition to their vaccination status.
Labour welcomed the move to make more tests available but echoed experts’ concerns that testing needed to be “backed up by decent financial support so sick people can isolate”.
Boris Johnson said the public has made “massive efforts to stop the spread of the virus” and that “regular rapid testing” was “important to make sure those efforts are not wasted”.
Rapid testing has so far only been available to those most at risk, and to certain people who need to leave their home for work or have children in school. Even so, the government says such tests have already identified 120,000 new cases since they were rolled out.
“Around one in three people who have Covid-19 show no symptoms, and as we reopen society and resume parts of life we have all dearly missed, regular rapid testing is going to be fundamental in helping us quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks,” said health secretary Matt Hancock.
“The vaccine programme has been a shot in the arm for the whole country, but reclaiming our lost freedoms and getting back to normal hinges on us all getting tested regularly.
“The British public have shown over the last year that they quickly adapt, and always do what is right in the interest of public health, and I know they will do their bit by getting tested regularly in the months ahead.”
The tests will be available from 9 April, when people will be able to order them for delivery to their homes. Community testing sites, school testing, and collection of tests from pharmacies will also be available – the latter for people without symptoms.
Additionally, officials say that over 100,000 businesses in England have registered their interest in providing tests to their employees.
Despite early concerns about the accuracy of rapid “lateral flow” tests, the government says there has been less than 1 false positive for every 1,000 tests carried out. The tests provide results in around 30 minutes.
A government marketing campaign is expected to begin on Friday, reminding people to get tested.
The government’s test and trace system was dogged with problems last year, leading the National Audit Office to warn that there was no evidence the £37bn system had helped to reduce Covid cases.
Other countries, however, such as Germany and South Korea, have been praised for apparently being able to limit the scale of outbreaks using more efficient test and trace systems that allow people to isolate before they spread the virus to others, reducing the R number.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 strategic response director at PHE and chief medical adviser to NHS Test and Trace, said: “Rapid testing helps us find Covid-19 cases that we wouldn’t otherwise know about, helping to break chains of transmission. These tests are effective in detecting people that are infectious and therefore most likely to transmit infection to others. They are another tool we now have to help maintain lower infection rates.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “We’ve long called for mass testing for those with and without symptoms as a key element in tackling the spread of the virus.
“But to break transmission chains and suppress infections, testing must go hand in hand with community public health-led contact tracing to find cases, and must be backed up by decent financial support so sick people can isolate.
“People who are sick with Covid are still forced to choose between self-isolation or feeding their families. Lack of adequate sick pay and support remains a dangerous hole in our defences against this horrific virus.”