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Tests made available to all over age of five showing coronavirus symptoms, as UK Government accused of acting slowly

Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Coronavirus tests are now available to all over the age of five who are showing symptoms, it has been announced.

Nicola Sturgeon said the tests would be available at drive-in centres across the country, or through any of the mobile testing centres, with the scheme being a collaboration between the Scottish and UK governments.

Up to now, testing has been limited to people with symptoms who are key workers, hospital patients, care home residents, over-65s and those who need to leave home to work in England and Scotland

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, speaking in the Commons, said: “Everyone aged five and over with symptoms is now eligible for a test, that applies right across the UK in all four nations from now.

“Anyone with a new continuous cough, a high temperature or the loss or change of sense of taste or smell can book a test by visiting

nhs.uk/coronavirus

.”

He added: “Yesterday we conducted 100,678 tests. Every day we are creating more capacity and that means more people can be tested, and the virus has fewer places to hide.”

It came as the UK’s chief medical officers agreed to add a loss of smell or taste to the list of coronavirus symptoms that people should look out for and self-isolate with.

Anyone experiencing a loss of smell or taste, also known as anosmia, should now self-isolate for seven days to reduce the risk of spreading the infection, according to guidance from the UK’s chief medical officers.

Until now, the NHS has only listed high temperature and cough as the symptoms that require further action.

Ear, nose and throat doctors have been warning for weeks that the symptoms should be broadened out.

‘We list about 14 symptoms…’

The UK’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, told reporters on Monday that the move would mean 93% of cases where people have symptoms are now picked up, a rise from 91% previously.

It comes after a study led by Professor Tim Spector at King’s College London found that 59% of Covid-19-positive patients reported loss of smell and taste, compared with only 18% of those who tested negative for the disease.

These results were much stronger in predicting if somebody had coronavirus than if they reported fever.

Prof Spector criticised the UK Government’s response to his research, saying infected people were being encouraged back to work in England when there was a failure to track symptoms properly.

There’s no point telling people to be alert if they don’t know the symptoms.”

Professor Tim Spector

He said 50,000 to 70,000 people in the UK with Covid-19 were currently not being told to self-isolate even though they had the virus.

He added that there are even more symptoms – such as tiredness, stomach pain or diarrhoea – that could be included as possible coronavirus symptoms.

He said: “We list about 14 symptoms which we know are related to having a positive swab test.

“These are not being picked up by the NHS. This country is missing them all and not only underestimating cases, but also putting people at risk and continuing the epidemic.

“There’s no point telling people to be alert if they don’t know the symptoms.”

ENT UK, the professional membership body representing ear, nose and throat surgery in the UK, said it had first warned that loss of smell and taste were symptoms of coronavirus eight weeks ago, saying it had shared those details with Public Health England.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) listed loss of smell and taste as “less common symptoms” several weeks ago and other countries, including the US, added the symptom.

Despite these warnings, Prof Van-Tam said on April 3 that the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) had looked at the issue and concluded loss of smell or taste should not be added to the UK’s symptom list.

But on Monday that guidance was changed, with Prof Van-Tam saying advisers had needed to look at the issue in detail.

He said scientists had had to “work out very carefully” how valid loss of taste or smell were in counting cases and where in the course of an illness the symptoms might occur.

Prof Spector’s paper cited loss of smell and taste as being more frequent in people who test positive “but very much in the presence of other symptoms”.

He added: “The question for Nervtag has always been: At what point can we be sure that by adding anosmia (loss of smell) or adding anything else, frankly – there’s plenty of other things such as fatigue, diarrhoea loss of appetite – at what point would adding any of these definitely improve and help us to pick up cases?

“That work has now been completed. And that’s why we’ve got to the position we have now, not just about whether or not anosmia exists – it’s about what role it plays in identifying cases, and that’s taken time to work through those data.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

During her daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon advised people in Scotland to observe the new guidance.

She said: “Until now we have been asking people to stay at home for seven days if you have a high temperature or a persistent cough – that remains the case.

“However, we have also said we are learning about this virus as it develops and we now have sufficient evidence to add an additional symptom which you should look out for.

“If you notice a loss or change in your sense of taste or smell, something called anosmia, that is also, or can also be, a symptom of Covid-19.”

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