Health Secretary Matt Hancock has urged the devolved nations to persist with a “UK-wide approach” to coronavirus after the Scottish Government published its own, detailed lockdown exit plan.
Mr Hancock said a united UK approach was the “best way to go” in beating the outbreak, as he revealed all essential workers in England would be able to book coronavirus tests online from Friday.
At the daily Downing Street briefing, Mr Hancock said the move was “part of getting Britain back on her feet”.
He added that the whole process would be free for those being tested.
The pledge came as it was announced that the number of people who had died in UK hospitals after contracting coronavirus had risen by 616, bringing the total to 18,738.
Despite daily deaths continuing to be in the high hundreds, ministers said that the UK was this week reaching the peak of the outbreak.
UK chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, who appeared alongside Mr Hancock, said he expected the plateauing of the death figures to “continue for another couple of weeks, and we will then see a faster decline thereafter”.
Mr Hancock, addressing questions over the length of the lockdown, said the adoption of “test, track and trace” could enable the “heavier” social-distancing measures to be eased.
“Test, track and trace, done effectively, can help to suppress the transmission in a way that allows you then to have lesser rules,” he said.
“Critically, test, track and trace works more effectively when the rate of new cases is lower.
“So, the lower the rate of new cases, the more effectively you can keep it down using test, track and trace rather than having to use heavier social-distancing measures.”
Mr Hancock confirmed 18,000 people would be hired to contact anyone suspected of having coronavirus and then trace their contacts in a bid to slow down the spread of the illness.
He said: “We need to be really kick-starting contact tracing as the new number of cases begins to fall.
“We’re preparing for this now by hiring an initial 18,000 people, including over 3,000 clinicians and public health specialists.
“We’ll be training up the massed ranks of our contact tracers over the coming weeks and roll out the service. This test, track and trace will be vital to stop a second peak of the virus.”
Mr Hancock resisted demands to give more transparency about the UK Government’s lockdown exit plan, however.
I understand the thirst for knowledge. But the message remains the same – that people need to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.”
Asked why London was not following Edinburgh’s lead in publishing more detailed plans, Mr Hancock said: “We’ve set out the five tests that are needed for us to make changes to the lockdown measures and the Scottish Government’s proposals are based on those tests.
“I think that having the four nations of the UK work together on this has been important thus far, not just on social distancing but also, for instance, on testing.”
He added: “The country has essentially moved together and you can see that in the flattening of the curve which has happened in all regions and nations of the UK. I think that the UK-wide approach is the best way to go.
“I understand the thirst for knowledge. But the message remains the same – that people need to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.”
Meanwhile, Downing Street insisted the target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day by April 30 remained in place, despite just 22,800 people being tested across the UK in the last 24 hours.
That followed comments by John Newton, the government official in charge of ramping up the number taking place, who appeared to dilute it when he said: “We have exponentially increased our testing capacity and we are on target to have capacity for 100,000 tests a day.”