Surge testing using fast lateral flow kits will be “a key part” of the strategy to get life back to normal, by blitzing areas where new strains or sudden infections appear, said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
It also emerged that mass testing will be used to create an unprecedented defensive barrier against Covid, including possible plans to post 400,000 rapid test kits to homes and workplaces every day, and to offer pupils the tests twice a week.
The plastic lateral flow tests — which work in a similar way to pregnancy tests — give results in 20 to 30 minutes and can be carried out at home. Yesterday, the Standard reported how ministers see them as a way of opening up entertainment and events such as concerts, Theatreland and sporting finals.
Boris Johnson is due to outline his roadmap out of lockdown on Monday when he will set out a rough timetable for the reopening of schools from March 8, along with one-to-one social meetings outdoors, followed over subsequent weeks by outdoor leisure and eventually pubs and restaurants. In key developments today:
- A firm demand that the number of infections nationwide must come down to below 50,000 before major freedoms from lockdown are possible was given by Chris Hopson, head of NHS providers. His target — around a 14th of the level of 695,400 people in England with coronavirus in the week ending February 6 — is the latest sign that scientists and health experts are determined to stop the Prime Minister from promising to unlock too quickly. Mr Hopson said there was a “pretty clear view” that “numbers needs to come down to around 50,000” and told the PM to focus on “data, not just dates”.
- Ministers were too slow in imposing tighter restrictions on areas under the tier system, the Government’s deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said today.
- Professor McLean also suggested that going to work with a cough could become “socially unacceptable” as Britain learns to live with Covid-19 after lockdown is eased.
- Covid-19 cases are tumbling in London, with three boroughs, Southwark, Richmond and Sutton, seeing them halving in a week, according to official figures.
- Up to 90 volunteers aged 18 to 30 are being asked to come forward and be deliberately infected with coronavirus in the world’s first “human challenge trials”, to be staged at the Royal Free Hospital in London.
- Britain today called for “vaccine ceasefires” in war torn areas around the world to allow medical teams to move in and protect people from Covid-19. Mr Raab was making the case for the plan at a UN Security Council meeting.
The importance of mass testing to the Government’s “irreversible” exit strategy was confirmed by Mr Raab who said “ambitious targets” were being drawn up at No 10. He did not deny reports of 400,000 tests per day being handed out.
“They are obviously designed to be challenging, because we want to get people out of the current lockdown as soon as possible,” he said. “The only way to do that is responsibly, safely — that’s the way we make it sustainable.”
He said pilots schemes in Liverpool and other towns had shown the “value” of tests in fighting outbreaks.
“It’s only one part of the strategic jigsaw, if you like, but make sure we can come down on it like a ton of bricks. There is a range of measures, but testing and rapid lateral flow testing is a key part of that.”
Sources did not dismiss a Times report that from March, about 68 per cent of people in England may be eligible for repeat rapid tests, including pupils, parents and teachers.
From April and May, repeat lateral flow tests would go to large and small businesses to identify cases in staff showing no symptoms.
Mr Hopson said an effective strategy to deal with outbreaks was essential and urged the PM not to rush the exit.
“If you look at where we are against those four tests, each one of them tells you that we’re still some way away from being able to start relaxing restrictions,” he told Radio 4’s Today.
“We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed.
“So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing restrictions prematurely.”
Giving evidence to the Commons science and technology committee, Professor McLean said that a cough — which can be a symptom of Covid-19 — may in future be seen like having a stomach upset and mean people stay away from work. She told the MPs: “I suspect we just won’t go to work if you have a respiratory illness.”