Revealed: The super-fast Covid tests set to end social distancing for ever
£500million boost for 5 trials that give results in as little as 20 minutes
MINISTERS are dramatically scaling up mass-testing trials with the aim of getting Britons back to work and finally ending social distancing restrictions.
They are investing £500million in a string of projects which will offer repeat routine tests to office workers, shoppers, public sector staff and schoolchildren.
Two of the five trials involve tests which deliver results in 20 minutes while another two turn them around in a maximum of 90 minutes. These would enable patients to self-isolate very quickly if they are found to be carrying the virus – or go back to work immediately if they are negative.
Boris Johnson told MPs yesterday that the tests could ‘end the need for social distancing’ if they were rolled out nationally, particularly in workplaces. Downing Street later confirmed the Prime Minister had hailed the concept of rapid and repeat testing as a ‘potential game-changer’ by enabling the UK to return to normality. A Whitehall insider said: ‘If people know that everyone in their office has been tested that week, it is going to give them a lot more confidence that it is safe to come back to work.’
A Department of Health source described the £500million funding boost as ‘the next step towards mass-testing.’ The Government is investing the money in five projects which either involve rapid tests or repeat swabs on members of the public who do not have symptoms.
One such trial will be launched in Salford,
Greater Manchester, within days and involve weekly tests on 250 people every day including office workers, shoppers and worshippers. The project will begin in a walk-in unit in the city centre but officials hope to roll it out to cover as many people as possible. They believe that by identifying positive cases very quickly – as well as their close contacts – they will avoid the need for local lockdowns by stopping the virus in its tracks.
Part of the money will be invested to expand a second trial in Southampton which involves a 20-minute saliva test to include 2,100 pupils and teachers across four secondary schools.
The same type of saliva test is being assessed in a third trial in Hampshire in GP surgeries, A&E units and care homes, which will now be expanded.
This test is particularly beneficial for schoolchildren as they do not have to have their nose and back-of-the throat swabbed, which can be very uncomfortable. Some of the remaining funding will go towards expanding two trials of 90-minute tests, the LamPORE and the DNA Nudgebox, which are currently in a number of NHS hospitals and care homes. Mr Johnson told colleagues that the new tests could ‘end the need for social distancing’ and play a major role in getting Britain back to normality.
An MP present at the private meeting said: ‘He told us there was news coming on a new test that can tell you if you are Covid contagious or not – and that this will end the need for social distancing. He was very animated about it.’
A No10 source said: ‘Widespread, swift-turnaround Covid testing could be a real gamechanger. The PM is hugely enthusiastic about this idea – that is why we are throwing everything at it. We are not there yet. The technology is not yet proven and we don’t know how quickly we will be able to scale things up. But if you can get it to the point where it works and can be scaled up around the country then it could be something that allows people to get more of their freedom back.’
Ministers are hoping to increase testing capacity from 350,000 a day to 500,000 by the end of October. Ultimately, they want to scale this up to four million tests a day by next February as part of a drive dubbed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as ‘Operation Moon Shot.’
Referring to the funding injection, Mr Hancock said: ‘Testing is a vital line of defence in combating this pandemic. Over the past six months we have built almost from scratch one of the biggest testing systems in the
‘This is a potential game-changer’
world. We are backing innovative new tests that are fast, accurate and easier to use and will maximise the impact and scale of testing, helping us to get back to a more normal way of life.’ Baroness Dido Harding, of the National Institute for Health Protection, said: ‘New testing technologies and methods are vital to keep the system evolving and improving, especially as we assess how routine testing could help pick up cases of the virus earlier.’
However, there is growing concern about the test and trace system. Figures last week showed it was identifying fewer close contacts than the previous month, down from 51 per cent to 42 per cent. Dr Layla McCay, of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘The latest test and trace figures show there is a big gap between where we are and where we need to be as we near the pressures of winter, so this new funding for trials to scale up testing capacity can’t come soon enough.’
Put to the test: Swabbing for Covid-19 in Salisbury and, left, a child is checked in Leicester