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Almost 100 military-run mobile coronavirus testing units are set to travel around the UK to increase access to testing for social care staff and other key workers, the government has announced.
The units will respond to areas of highest demand and will travel to test frontline workers and vulnerable people at sites such as care homes, prisons and police stations.
“Testing is key in our battle against coronavirus”
The government’s aim is to deploy 96 mobile testing units across the UK throughout May – 92 of which will be staffed by the armed forces and a further four, located in Northern Ireland, will be operated by civilian contractors.
The move comes after a pilot last week which saw Department of Health and Social Care vehicles refitted to fully functioning testing sites, following a design developed by the Royal Engineers of the British Army.
As of Sunday, there were eight existing mobile units in place carrying out tests across the country, including in Salisbury, Southport and Teeside.
The facilities can be set up in under 20 minutes and will allow the testing of hundreds of people every day, noted the government.
It added that the units would prioritise travelling to those most in need and hard to reach and would cover care homes, police stations, prisons, benefit centres and fire and rescue services.
Under the initiative, specially trained armed forces personnel will collect swabs at the mobile sites which will then be sent to laboratories for processing, and those tested will receive results within 48 hours.
Responding to the news, Niall Dickson, chief executive of NHS Confederation, said the testing expansion was “vital” as home tests and drive-through test sites were proving popular.
“The inclusion of social care is important because the current testing sites are too reliant on having access to a car,” he said.
Mr Dickson added: “We are looking for greater government commitment to test staff and their families because, in the absence of a vaccine, testing will be crucial to controlling this virus in the community and helping to keep our staff safe and confident.
“As the NHS prepares to resume care and treatment that has been stopped or curtailed, it is more important than ever that those staff who are well can continue to work safely,” he added.
“They will make sure our care sector get the testing required to remain in the frontline”
Also commenting on the announcement, Lord Bethell, the health minister leading the government’s testing strategy, said: “Everyone who needs a coronavirus test should be able to have access to one.
“New mobile testing units will travel the country to provide vital frontline workers with tests so those testing negative to safely return to work.”
He said the government had “built up capacity in the system with new testing facilities backed by Britain’s world-class scientists and industry partners”.
“This means more workers can know if they have coronavirus if they have been demonstrating symptoms,” added Lord Bethell.
“Testing is key in our battle against coronavirus. We now have the ability to provide more people with the certainty they need to get back to the front line when it is safe to do so.”
Defence secretary Ben Wallace added: “Our armed forces will help deliver testing to where it’s most needed, using a network of up to 96 mobile units that will be rolled out in the coming weeks.
“They will make sure our care sector get the testing required to remain in the frontline of the fight against this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, national testing coordinator John Newton said the new mobile testing units would help the government achieve its goal of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April.
“Each day we are delivering more coronavirus tests and allowing more frontline staff testing negative for the virus to safely return to work,” he added.
The news follows the announcement last week that other frontline workers would join the priority list for Covid-19 testing.