Prime Minister Boris Johnson is betting that relentless, repeated testing for as many people as possible — including those who feel perfectly fine — will help break transmission chains, limit 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.”
But questions remain about who will bother to take the tests. The United States has seen a dramatic decline in demand for testing, as the public looks to vaccines instead as the way to end the pandemic.
And if the self-administered tests show an infection, will people accurately report that to the government and then stay home? A recent study published in the BMJ found that many people were already ignoring isolation rules.
Many in Britain are also concerned that Johnson’s mass testing will dovetail with another effort to create “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 past six months. These data would come from public health service and self-reports.
The certificates would need to pass votes in parliament, where 70 members have recently launched a campaign to oppose them.
Johnson’s government, however, will begin experimenting with certificates to allow people to attend some sporting events, comedy shows and other mass gatherings.
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 underway, regular rapid testing is even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted,” Johnson said in a statement.
Starting on Friday, people in England will be offered lateral flow testing kits, which can be used at home, with nasal and throat swabs, 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 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 would certainly be a stretch. Currently, Britain records 1.2 million daily tests.
Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.