Nearly 50,000 businesses have signed up for the government’s free workplace COVID tests, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced.

The government claims this is a vital step towards restoring normal life after the pandemic. Tests can give a result within 30 minutes – and NHS Test and Trace analysis suggests they have a specificity of at least 99.9%.

Mr Hancock said: “We have built a huge asymptomatic testing system from scratch, which is an essential part of our plan to reopen cautiously.

“Rapid testing has been rolled out at a vast scale across a range of sectors, and it is fantastic that now over 48,000 businesses have signed up to offer rapid testing to employees.

“This is a huge step forward in getting businesses back on their feet and helping to keep people safe.

“With about one in three people with the virus not having symptoms, regular testing is essential to bearing down on the virus and identify new variants of concern as we work towards restoring normal life.

“I strongly encourage all businesses to register their interest before the 31 March deadline.”

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The government says about one in three people with coronavirus don’t have symptoms, which means they could be spreading the virus in workplaces without knowing.

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Rapid testing for people without symptoms detects cases quickly meaning positive cases can isolate immediately, breaking chains of transmission, according to ministers.

Mr Hancock says testing will form a crucial part of everyday life as parts of society reopen. Regular testing could be the difference between a workplace being able to stay open and operational, or needing to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Businesses of any size, including those with fewer than 50 employees, can sign up to offer workplace testing. Those who need to leave home for work can also access regular testing through community testing, which is now offered by all local authorities in England.

The government says regular, rapid testing is already in place for millions of people across the NHS, care homes and schools.

It has also confirmed free twice-weekly testing to all adults in households with nursery, primary, secondary school and college aged children and young people, including childcare and support bubbles.

This is in addition to the two tests for all secondary and college students and staff per week. Staff at private, voluntary and independent nurseries also have access to rapid testing through their workplace.