Two testing breakthroughs were unveiled last night to dramatically boost hopes of getting the UK moving.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed ministers are trialling an on-the-spot test to tell patients if they have the virus in just 20 minutes – up from the current average of two days.
This would let them return to work the same day if they were negative rather than self-isolating just in case while they awaited results.
If deemed effective, it will be rolled out nationally within six weeks.
Hancock also announced the launch of 10 million antibody tests from next week to tell patients if they have already had the virus.
These fingerprick blood tests – with results coming back the same day – could enable tens of thousands to return to work confident they have built up some immunity.
Hancock eventually hopes to develop a certification system based on positive antibody results to tell people how they can safely go about their lives.
Separately, he outlined preliminary findings from research involving antibody tests which suggest 5 per cent of people nationally, and 17 per cent in London, have already had the virus.
The developments came as:
• Business leaders begged ministers to unlock the economy as figures appeared to show the virus coming under control;
• London has recorded fewer than 100 new cases every day for the past fortnight;
• Ministers prepared to publish the key scientific advice on schools reopening;
• Britain will press ahead with a tough 14-day quarantine plan for all ports and airports – despite warnings it will wreck hopes of a summer getaway;
• It was claimed the Government's new "test and trace" scheme will require people to self-isolate for 14 days if they come into close contact with a coronavirus sufferer;
• Boris Johnson was forced into a U-turn last night as he scrapped fees charged to overseas health workers to use the NHS;
•Criminals are cashing in on the pandemic by submitting fake furlough claims;
• Employers could be asked to pay pension and national insurance contributions for furloughed staff from the end of July.
Hancock eventually wants to develop a certificate system based on antibody test results which would inform people how to safely go about their lives.
This could allow an elderly patient with a positive result to go to hospital for hip surgery, in the knowledge that they were highly unlikely to catch the virus on the ward.
Equally a doctor or nurse with a positive result could be redeployed to virus wards as they would also be at very low risk.
Announcing the antibody test rollout at the Downing Street press conference yesterday, Hancock said: "It's not just about the clinical advances that these tests can bring. It's that knowing you have these antibodies will help us to understand more in the future if you are at lower risk of catching coronavirus, of dying from coronavirus and of transmitting coronavirus.
"We're developing this critical science to know the impact of a positive antibody test and to develop the systems of certification to ensure people who have positive antibodies can be given assurances of what they can safely do."
The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said: "This could be a game changer – and it is great that we now have a reliable antibody test.
"As the Government acknowledges, of course, there are still unknowns. We don't yet know whether antibodies mean you are immune."
Earlier the Prime Minister's spokesman said the tests would be "free for people who need them, as you would expect".
The Department of Health hopes to carry out 40,000 antibody tests a week although they will initially be performed in hospitals rather than at home.
They will initially be offered to NHS staff and care workers but some patients will be able to request them via their doctors.
These could include key workers – teachers, train drivers or prison staff.
Ten million of the tests have been ordered from Abbott, Roche and Ortho Clinical Diagnostics.
The second type of test announced by Hancock tells patients if they currently have the virus within just 20 minutes.
It was launched yesterday in a trial involving 4000 patients in Hampshire who will be swabbed at GP surgeries, hospitals and care homes.
Crucially these tests can be assessed by hospitals on-site rather than having to be sent away to a lab.
If the technique is deemed to be both successful and effective, it will be rolled out nationally within six weeks.
Hancock said yesterday: "This new test could provide accurate results almost on the spot. This will enable health and care workers to carry on with their shift or immediately isolate on the same day."