The health secretary said the government’s testing programme would be expanded to include other critical frontline workers, including prison staff, the judiciary and benefits advisers who require it.
Only NHS staff, social care workers and patients had previously been eligible for testing, prompting concern from other key workers that staff are needlessly self-isolating or unknowingly infecting people with the virus.
Mr Hancock told the Commons health committee: “So I know history of testing is going to be a long debated subject. What really matters is what we’re going to do from here on in.
“And what I can tell you is that today we are able to expand the eligibility for testing which is currently for patients, for surveys and for NHS and social care staff, and some that go to LRFs [local resilience forums] for local urgent need.
“I can today expand the eligibility for testing to police, the fire service, prison staff, critical local authority staff, the judiciary and DWP staff who need it and we’re able to do that because of the scale-up of testing.”
As of midday on Thursday, 18,665 tests had been conducted in the previous 24 hours, Mr Hancock told MPs.
He said: “Now we’ve got the curve under control, I want to be able to get back to the position that we can test everybody with symptoms and I anticipate being able to do that relatively soon because we’re increasing capacity as I say.”
Union leaders previously called for priority testing for firefighters to prevent staffing levels plummeting to “dangerously low levels”.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said nearly 3,000 fire and rescue staff across the UK are currently in self-isolation due to Covid-19.
It comes amid mounting concern over testing capacity for frontline staff, with RCN general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair telling the committee that some nurses were driving for two hours to testing centres only to be turned away if they did not have an appointment.
Mr Hancock admitted that the number of NHS staff who have come forward to be tested for the virus has been lower than expected.
He said: “You’ll understand why we had a priority order for the use of the test where it was patients first, then NHS staff.
“Frankly, the number of NHS staff coming forward wasn’t as high as expected and therefore we extended it very quickly both to residents and staff in social care.
“But because capacity is going up sharply, I’m therefore able to expand it further and we’ll expand it again as soon as the capacity is there to make sure that that capacity is used up.”
Elsewhere, a student doctor working as a swab tester said the scaled-up capacity at his centre in Milton Keynes was “being wasted”.
Gianmarco Raddi, a molecular biologist at Cambridge University, wrote in The Guardian: “Our shifts were meant to be excruciating 12-hour marathons. In reality, they are rather more like laid-back morning jogs.
“Dozens of academics and laboratory personnel from all over the UK languish in a hotel with nothing to do.
“Millions of pounds of equipment borrowed from universities and companies rests silently in the evening hours, when the noise of our collective toil should be deafening.”