Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday is expected to announce his plan to bolster Britain’s vaccination rollout with the mass testing of England’s entire population, in order to identify those who are unwittingly infectious and could unknowingly spread the virus.
Johnson’s government is betting that relentless, frequent testing for as many people as possible — including those who feel perfectly fine — will help break transmission chains, dampen future outbreaks and get people back to work and normal life.
The prime minister promised the free, simple tests will help “to stop outbreaks in their tracks, so we can get back to seeing the people we love and doing the things we enjoy.”
Starting on Friday, people in England will be offered lateral flow testing kits, which can be used at home, with nasal and throat swab, and give results in less than 30 minutes. The regional governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales may soon follow.
The tests can be ordered through National Health Service (NHS) or picked up at pharmacies or testing centers, or from employers.
The prime minister will outline the mass testing program at a news conference from 10 Downing Street on Monday evening.
“As we continue to make good progress on our vaccine program and with our road map cautiously easing restrictions under way, regular rapid testing is even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted,” Johnson said in a statement.
The program remains controversial among some scientists, who question whether the billion-dollar costs and efforts are really worth it, and they warn of the large number of possible false positives and negative results. They also say without money or better incentives for people who test positive to stay at home, most will not.
Speaking on the BBC, Health Minister Edward Argar said the tests would be paid for by a $50 billion NHS fund to support its test-and-trace effort, which has struggled.
A previous experiment in mass testing, undertaken in Liverpool last year, showed the rapid test kits most widely used in Britain detect 49 percent of covid-19 infections in asymptomatic people, compared with a more costly and time-consuming polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.
The health minister said the latest data showed that fewer than one in every 1,000 tests gave a false positive result.
Supporters of mass testing say it doesn’t really matter — on a population scale — if the inexpensive tests miss some cases, as long as the test helps alert a large number of people with no symptoms that they might be infected and urge them to stay at home.
Those who test positive will be told to self-isolate, along with their household. They will also be encouraged to get a more accurate PCR test, and if that one says they are not infected, then they are free to go about their lives.
The program to mass test the population was first floated last year as “Operation Moonshot,” a plan to test 10 million people every day, or everyone in the country every week, at a cost of $130 billion. That program envisioned people being tested before they go to work, attend sporting matches or other mass gatherings.
At that time, many scientists were skeptical: “This is not going to work,” said Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, who dismissed Moonshot as the work of bureaucrats and consultants, not scientists.
Giving 10 million tests a day will certainly be stretch. Currently, the United Kingdom records 1.2 million daily tests.
Now, mass testing appears as if it will be cornerstone of the government effort to restart the economy. Britain is just beginning to come out its third national lockdown.
Alongside the testing, the government is considering the introduction of what officials are calling “coronavirus status certifications,” or vaccine passports.
The certificates would show whether an individual has been vaccinated, recently tested negative for the virus or has natural immunity due to previous infection within the last six months.
The proposals would need to pass votes in parliament, where 70 members have recently launched a campaign to oppose the covid-19 certifications.
Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.