UK looks at rapid testing to allow return of mass gatherings

The UK is considering rapid coronavirus testing for the entertainment industry to allow mass gatherings to resume later this year in situations where social distancing is impractical or uneconomical.

Government officials confirmed that plans were being drawn up for rapid testing to be rolled out once most of the economy had reopened. “Quick turnround testing is part of a plan to get mass gatherings back,” one insider said.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Monday, prime minister Boris Johnson said that so-called “vaccination passports” could be introduced for international travel, but would be unlikely to be required for domestic pursuits, such as dining out.

“Some countries clearly are going to be wanting to insist people coming to their country have evidence of a vaccination, just as people insisted in the past you had evidence you were vaccinated against yellow fever,” he said.

Johnson also told Sky News: “What I don’t think we will have in this country is — as it were — vaccination passports to allow you to go to, say, the pub or something like that.”

The prime minister added that rapid testing, along with mass vaccination, would be examined for “those bits that are the toughest nuts to crack”, namely venues that the government failed to reopen last year, such as nightclubs and some theatres.

Ministers are considering plans for “test with a ticket”, where customers will be offered a quick turnround test for Covid-19 as part of attending a concert or performance.

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“Those kind of things can really help us open up things with bigger numbers, where social distancing affects their ability to operate in an economic way,” one individual with knowledge of the plans said.

But some Whitehall officials said the plans remained “at the very early stages” and “such measures would be part of efforts to reduce social distancing when we’re in a much better place”.

One ministerial aide said: “Everyone in government is desperate to open stuff up, but we have to give the confidence that it can stay up. We have to take it step by step.”

Lateral flow tests have, however, been plagued by doubts over their accuracy and one person working on the plans noted that “it’s not going to be perfect, we can’t provide total assurance”.

Although Johnson did not entirely rule out domestic vaccination passports, he appeared to differ from the suggestion by foreign secretary Dominic Raab on Sunday that they were “under consideration”.

Such a proposal would face fierce opposition from libertarian Conservatives MPs. One senior Tory said that the ministers responsible for the policy — health secretary Matt Hancock, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi as well as Johnson himself — were all opposed to the idea of a domestic passport.

David Davis, former cabinet minister and civil liberties campaigner, said a domestic vaccine passport would run counter to the British tradition where people cannot be stopped and asked to produce “their papers”.

He said: “I will resist quite fiercely — and so will quite a few others — the idea of a domestic vaccination passport. We would block it with every power we had at our disposal. There would be a bloody fight.”

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The current nationwide lockdown rules in England

  • The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message

  • People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally

  • The most clinically vulnerable have been asked to shield

  • All colleges and primary and secondary schools are closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers are still able to attend while nursery provision is available

  • University students have to study from home until at least mid-February

  • Hospitality and non-essential retail are closed. Takeaway services are available but not for the sale of alcohol

  • Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos are closed. Playgrounds are open

  • Places of worship are open but one may attend only with one’s household

  • Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, are closed. Elite sport, including the English Premier League, continues

  • Overseas travel is allowed for “essential” business only 

Full details are available on the government’s official website.



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