The Government has set out an ambition to test all care home staff and residents with COVID-19 symptoms "as testing capacity continues to increase".
Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said: "Testing is key in our battle against coronavirus, and as part of our plan to prevent the spread and save lives, we will ensure that everyone in social care who needs a test can have a test."
His intervention followed weeks of pleas from care providers to carry out more tests, with reports of outbreaks at more than 2000 care homes.
The Government has been criticised because official figures for the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 rely on those who die in hospital but not those in care homes or other community settings. That has led to charities warning that older people were being "airbrushed" out of the pandemic.
All symptomatic care residents will be tested for COVID-19 in line with an increase in testing capacity
All patients discharged from hospital to be tested before going into care homes as a matter of course
All social care staff who need a test will now have access to one with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) to contact all 30,000 care providers in the coming days to offer tests
Currently, swabbing is recommended for only up to five residents who show symptoms of the virus in a care home to confirm the existence of an outbreak. Guidance published earlier this month says: "Testing all cases is not required as this would not change subsequent management of the outbreak."
However, the new guidance said that as laboratory capacity increased, more widespread testing would become possible.
Tests for social care staff and residents would support the Government to achieve its ambition of 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of April, the DHSC said.
Mr Hancock also announced that testing was already available for every social care worker who needed it.
The CQC was leading co-ordination of testing for the care sector, and had already offered 6000 care facilities the opportunity to test their staff, the DHSC said. By the end of this week, it would have contacted all 30,000 care providers, the statement added.
Mr Hancock said: "I am deeply conscious that people in residential care are among the most vulnerable to coronavirus. We are doing everything we can to keep workers, residents and their families safe, and I am determined to ensure that everyone who needs a coronavirus test should be able to have access to one.
"We have already begun testing social care workers and will roll this out nationwide over the coming days. And as we continue to ramp up our testing programme, we will test all current care home residents with coronavirus symptoms and all new care home residents who are discharged from hospital into care."
Deaths in UK Care Homes
Official figures from the Office for National Statistics published yesterday showed that a total of 406 deaths in England linked to COVID-19 up until 3rd April occurred outside of hospitals. That equated to 9.8% of all deaths, the ONS said.
Of those deaths, 217 occurred in care homes, and 33 in hospices.
Figures released today by the National Records of Scotland showed that 25% of COVID-19 deaths registered up until 12th April related to deaths in care homes.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's First Minister, announced at her lunchtime briefing a move to test all symptomatic patients in care homes "for the confidence of relatives, staff, and the wider public".
HC-One, which is responsible for 328 care homes across the UK, confirmed to Medscape News UK that it had recorded 2447 confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, and 311 deaths, up until the 14th April.
Prof Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents independent providers of adult social care, said: "During this dreadful pandemic it is hard to find things to be positive about, but today's announcement from DHSC that testing will be available for all social care staff and residents that need it is indeed welcome.
"Care homes will be in a much better position to face this virus head-on once they have been able to test both their staff, residents and new residents who have been discharged from hospital into their care homes."
Liz Kendall, Labour's shadow minister for social care, said: "We look forward to seeing details of how this latest commitment will be delivered, with only 500 care staff having been tested to date."
Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, commented: "With the virus spreading through care homes at a terrifying rate, widespread testing for staff and patients is vital.
"This increase is welcome but should have happened much sooner."