Staff on the NHS’s own coronavirus helpline were being told to wave through tests for people without symptoms until last week, the Mirror can reveal.
The new evidence could prove embarrassing for Matt Hancock – who tried to blame healthy people getting too many tests for a scramble over slots.
The Health Secretary yesterday pointed the finger at holidaymakers and schools for a surge in demand, which has left people having to travel hundreds of miles to get tested for Covid-19.
Mr Hancock insisted “the message is clear” that if you don’t have symptoms of coronavirus, you normally shouldn’t get a test. No10 added: “We’ve been clear on this.”
But guidance to 119’s own call handlers said they should “proceed to book a test” for callers who asked for one – even if they didn’t have a cough, fever or loss of taste and smell.
The guidance seen by the Mirror was issued on August 5 and appears to have been rescinded on September 3, according to internal memos.
A 119 worker, who asked to remain anonymous, claimed the “warning signs were there” for weeks that more people were booking tests without symptoms.
Slamming Mr Hancock, the worker said: “To come out with that statement as if it has nothing to do with him – it’s really galling.”
The Health Secretary yesterday said there had been a sharp rise in people without symptoms booking a test – including whole school groups or people going on holiday.
Some 25% of all tests were being booked by people without symptoms.
Mr Hancock said: “That is not what the testing system is there for.
“The testing system is there to control this epidemic and we’ve got to be firmer I’m afraid with the rules around eligibility for testing.
“We were able to be quite relaxed about that.”
Critics had already said there was little to stop asymptomatic people getting a test, despite the rules.
The guidance seen by the Mirror now shows staff were actively encouraged to wave those tests through.
Internal 119 guidance on August 5 said: “If a caller does not have symptoms but is requesting a test, please proceed to book them a test via the route of their choice.”
On September 3 staff then received an update which said: “If the caller does not identify as symptomatic you should ask their reason for getting tested.
“If a caller does not have these qualifying symptoms and is not an approved participant in one of the asymptomatic trials/pilots or in one of the following groups you should not proceed with the test booking. Tests are for symptomatic individuals only”.
The list of those allowed a test without symptoms includes people in outbreak areas, care home or specialist prison staff, and people entering social care.
A source confirmed the guidance was deliberately left more relaxed, but then tightened due to a surge in demand.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “NHS Test and Trace is working and our capacity is the highest it has ever been.
“But we are seeing a significant demand for tests including from people who do not have symptoms and are not otherwise eligible.
“New booking slots and home testing kits are made available daily for those who need them and we are targeting testing capacity at the areas that need it most, including those where there is an outbreak, and prioritising at-risk groups.”