Hundreds of thousands of people across Britain are expected to take part in a study assessing levels of coronavirus throughout the population.
At present, researchers are regularly testing 28,000 people, but officials have announced plans to expand the programme to include 400,000 across Britain.
By October 150,000 people will be involved, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
NEWS: The ONS COVID-19 Infection Survey will expand from testing 28,000 people per fortnight in England to 150,000 by October
This will allow us to further narrow down the areas potentially affected by local outbreaks & continue our fight to curb the spread ahead of winter.
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) August 19, 2020
The survey aims to act as a surveillance tool to look out for coronavirus hot spots, and may help in spotting any potential second wave.
The survey also provides data on the types of people who are more likely to be infected, and could be key in highlighting numbers who are infected but have no symptoms.
Participants from private households, with or without symptoms, provide regular nose and throat swabs on a regular basis. These are analysed to see whether they have contracted the virus.
Some people are also asked to provide a blood sample which looks for antibodies.
Katherine Kent of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said increasing the sample size of the study will give more certainty around the results and help increase confidence in reacting to changes in the data, such as if a surge of infections is spotted.
Today we’re announcing a huge expansion of our Coronavirus Infection Survey to provide new insight into the spread of the virus. By enrolling 400,000 people in England we will provide data to support rapid testing and diagnosis down to the local level. https://t.co/8uIDj1pce6
— ONS Focus (@ONSfocus) August 19, 2020
Professor Sarah Walker, chief investigator and academic lead of the study, from the University of Oxford, said: “The point of the scale-up is that if we have a problem in October, we are not caught unawares at either a national or local level.
“The scale-up is in order to detect things going up massively or exponentially at a regional level.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We are developing the capacity to test for coronavirus on an unprecedented scale and undertaking one of the biggest expansions of surveillance testing we have ever seen.
“This ONS survey will be a crucial part of this work – improving our understanding of the rate of infection in the population and how many people have antibodies.
“This will allow us to further narrow down the areas potentially affected by local outbreaks and continue our fight to curb the spread ahead of winter.
“The data and insight gathered will help inform our national, regional and local responses to the pandemic, allowing this nation to get back to the things we love doing.”
Meanwhile the Government has said it will provide a £2 million grant to support the ZOE Covid-19 Symptom Study app to support its work on data collection.
Officials have said users of the app can support vital work to track the virus and help save lives.
It comes after Public Health England announced that 10,000 NHS workers in England had signed up to its immunity study.
Scientists are assessing whether people can become immune to the virus or if they can become infected a for a second time, with participants providing regular blood and swab tests.
Work is ongoing to recruit participants in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Preliminary results from the study are expected before winter.
Professor Susan Hopkins from Public Health England said: “Every day we learn more and more about the impacts of becoming infected with Covid-19, but we don’t know if you can get it again, if you can pass it on, or if you develop immunity. We urgently need to find out the answers to these questions as rapidly as possible.
“I can’t overstate how grateful we are to the 10,000 NHS doctors, nurses, cleaners and porters who have signed up so far to help improve our knowledge about this new infection.”