Matt Hancock has ordered all spare coronavirus tests to be used for NHS workers, as it emerged only a small proportion of those in isolation appear to be really sick with the virus.
The health secretary, who is in isolation, removed the cap on NHS staff only being allowed access to 15% of testing capacity while 85% were reserved for patients.
This has led to testing well below capacity for the past few days, but the Department of Health now hopes it will ramp up to more than 10,000 tests a day, with capacity exceeding 12,000 and set to hit 15,000 within days.
The government has faced a backlash for testing fewer than 5,000 people a day at the weekend and 8,200 at the last count, in contrast with Germany’s 70,000.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said an increase in testing was crucial so that NHS staff in isolation can get back to work.
He said there was “intriguing data from a very small sample size … only around 15% of those in 14-day isolation tested positive so the other 85% could come back to work” which if “anything like right, is a huge opportunity”.
Public health experts have been calling for mass community testing to ensure those infected very strictly observe quarantine measures.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, said on Tuesday that the UK was being hindered by the global shortage of chemical reagents needed for testing.
The Chemical Industries Association cast doubt on that claim, saying there was no shortage of chemical ingredients.
But a government spokesperson said: “There is a global shortage of components specific to testing kits used by the NHS and others around the world.
“The prime minister and the health secretary are working with companies worldwide to ensure that we get the material we need to increase tests of all kinds.”
Hopson also backed up the government, saying he recognised the view of chemical industry “but trust leaders tell us of major shortages of swabs and chemicals needed to complete tests”.
“There is a global shortage. But everyone is doing everything they can to maximise supply,” he said.
Hopson added: “We understand that if existing NHS pathology labs had unlimited swabs and reagent there is enough test machine capacity to process 100,000 tests a day but reagent and swab shortage is currently limiting this to 13,000 a day.”
There is also some frustration inside Whitehall that Public Health England (PHE) has been too rigorous about sticking to its own centralised testing, before allowing it to be rolled out to more private labs around the country.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said the UK “needs a clear national testing strategy for community testing and contact tracing.”
He added: “If delays in scaling up testing is lack of relevant chemicals. Why is the chemical industry saying it could make them if asked? If it’s about Public Health England validation surely ministers can pull everyone together to hammer out an urgent solution?”
PHE has resisted the idea of a return to community testing – the practice of testing everyone who has symptoms so that live cases can be quarantined effectively.
The body is instead prioritising the need for an antibody test, showing who has already had the disease and therefore will be immune to it. However, this test has not yet been approved for use and there is a time lag of days before patients who have had coronavirus start showing the antibodies that prove they have been infected.