Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced that fire and rescue personnel, police, prison staff, and Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) workers will now be eligible for coronavirus testing, in a session of the Health and Social Care Committee.
It comes after sustained pressure from the FBU, calling on the government to secure COVID-19 tests for firefighters and control staff.
The FBU wrote to ministers across the UK on 20 March and slammed the Westminster government earlier this week for failing to secure tests for personnel in England, as testing began in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Whilst welcoming the development, the FBU raised concerns about the eligibility criteria for being granted a test as well as the accessibility of the testing centres.
The union has also said that there must still be an urgent increase in testing capacity so that key workers like fire and rescue personnel can get tested regularly.
Current government guidance states that arranging a test under the scheme announced today is a matter for the employer and that workers should refer to their line manager.
The union is planning further discussions with employers.
Responding to the announcement, Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary, said:
‘We’re pleased to see that the government has listened to the FBU and finally agreed to open up some testing to other key workers, including fire and rescue personnel. However, it is a shame it has come this late, with thousands of firefighters already self-isolating - this is something that could have been easily avoided.
‘We are awaiting further details but it is clear that there are questions around the functioning of the scheme that is now open to more key workers. The health secretary said fewer NHS staff were coming forward to be tested than hoped, but this is surely an issue of accessibility, rather than frontline staff not wanting to be tested. Many of the testing centres are far out of town and require extended trips in a car – if this is a barrier to nursing staff, it will also be a barrier to other key workers.
“It is also clear that this testing scheme will only identify the virus in those individuals presenting symptoms or living with others who are. Many key workers who have been exposed through their work will have contracted the virus yet remain asymptomatic. Frequent and accessible testing of key workers who are at high risk of exposure is also needed to reduce the risk of spread in workplaces.
"To ensure that fire and rescue services, and other vital services can continue to operate in this crisis, we don’t just need access to these testing schemes, but to also see the capacity of the schemes themselves increase. There need to be more tests available full stop."