Staff working in care homes are to be tested every week starting on Monday, with residents tested every month, the government has said.
The expansion of testing comes as a whistleblower at one of the testing laboratories revealed dozens of shifts had been cancelled throughout May and June because of a lack of test samples.
Ministers hope that the expansion of testing will help to prevent the spread of infection to vulnerable residents.
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Repeat testing will initially be limited to care homes looking after people aged over 65 or those with dementia, but will eventually be rolled out to all care homes from August.
The change in testing strategy follows new advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), and a new study showing there is a higher prevalence of the virus in care homes.
The Vivaldi 1 study, which surveyed almost 9,000 care home managers and analysed data from whole care-home testing, identified higher levels of the virus among care staff, particularly among temporary staff who work across multiple sites.
The study suggests that care home staff may be at increased risk of contracting the virus, which they may then pass on even if they display no symptoms.
The care minister, Helen Whately, said: “It is our priority to protect care residents and staff, and testing is a crucial part of that. That’s why from Monday, residents will be offered monthly tests, and staff will be tested every week. This is so important as it means care workers can be sure they are providing the very best care without worrying if they are carrying the virus themselves.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said: “We welcome the introduction of weekly testing for care staff and monthly testing for residents. The testing programme is one of the cornerstones of Covid-19 prevention, and we are pleased that the Department of Health and Social Care has recognised this, and responded with a comprehensive approach to repeat testing.”
More than 16,000 deaths in care homes have been reported in the UK, the worst figure in any major European country.
Academics at the London School of Economics said on Sunday that the proportion of residents dying in UK care settings was one-third higher than in Ireland and Italy, about double that of France and Sweden, and 13 times higher than in Germany.
In May, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, faced criticism after claiming that the government had put a “protective ring” around care homes at the start of the outbreak.
Prior to that, in February, Public Health England had claimed that care home residents were unlikely to become infected; then in March, NHS England instructed hospitals to discharge patients without a test for the virus to free up beds.