British government faces pushback on mass COVID-19 testing plan - sources - Metro US

British government faces pushback on mass COVID-19 testing plan – sources

FILE PHOTO: Testing of a lateral flow antigen test facility in St Andrews

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists and advisers are resisting British government plans to test the population for COVID-19 to boost efforts to reopen the economy because they have concerns about the widespread use of rapid tests, sources close to its testing programme said.

Under growing pressure to chart a way out of England’s third national lockdown and facing criticism of his handling of the pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to speed up efforts to get children back to school and revive businesses.

A plan under discussion in government for some time is to test much of the population, with the aim of cutting transmission of the virus by finding and isolating more of the one-in-three people with COVID-19 who display no symptoms, two sources close to the testing programme said.

But that plan is being held up, they said, by scientific and clinical experts and policy advisers, some of whom question whether the flaws in the rapid tests outweigh the benefits.

One source said previous dates pencilled in for launching nationwide testing had been and gone, while the other said officials in the test and trace programme were preparing “just in case” for next month but were doubtful it would come to pass.

A spokeswoman for the health department said the government saw “targeted asymptomatic testing” as a way to help “detect these cases and break the chains of transmission”, suggesting ministers were not, as yet, moving to mass population testing.

“To help stop the virus spreading, hundreds of thousands of lateral flow tests are being carried out every day, with the majority taking place at dedicated tests sites for people without symptoms in a range of community settings such as universities, schools, care homes and workplaces.”


Johnson, criticised for a perceived reluctance to introduce measures quickly in his COVID-19 response, in September hailed “Operation Moonshot” – a plan that expanded the use of “lateral flow tests” that give results in less than an hour.

He said such tests would enable more people to gather, particularly over Christmas, and hoped their use would be widespread by spring and then over the summer “could allow life to return closer to normality”.

    But a new, more infectious variant of COVID-19 – first detected in southern England – has complicated those plans.

Despite having rolled out vaccines against the virus more quickly than many other countries, the government is now struggling to try to stop the health service from being overwhelmed by hundreds of new arrivals every day.

With the world’s fifth highest death toll, Britain is also in one of its deepest economic contractions on record.

Some in government say testing of the whole population could help contain the virus while the vaccine roll-out continues, with the two in tandem seen as key to the lifting of restrictions.

    The lateral flow tests have already been made available to staff in the National Health Service (NHS) and care homes, to schools, colleges and universities, and are being rolled out to local authorities. Some firms are also joining the scheme.

So far, more than 41,000 positive cases have been detected through rapid testing.


But not everyone believes mass testing is helpful.

The head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) emergencies programme, Mike Ryan, said last year broad population testing was costly and unrealistic even if some testing of asymptomatic people can be helpful.

And several scientists say that while the lateral flow tests have high specificity, meaning a positive test result is unlikely to be false, their lower sensitivity may lead to as many as 50% of positive cases being missed.

The health ministry spokeswoman said the lateral flow tests the government uses “go through a rigorous evaluation by the country’s leading scientists”.

“They are effective at detecting infectious cases of coronavirus, are easy to use and give results in 30 minutes so those who test positive can isolate immediately.”

The government advice for self-testing with lateral flow tests says “negative results do not rule out COVID-19 infection”.

Still, proponents of conducting regular lateral flow tests of populations say they can help identify the most infectious COVID-19 cases, particularly in workplaces, enabling quicker self-isolation to stop localised outbreaks.

Dido Harding, the head of England’s COVID-19 test and trace system, said while no test was perfect, the lateral flow tests were “extremely useful” because of their speed, easy distribution and ability to pick up asymptomatic cases.

“Taking a lateral flow test twice a week, week in, week out, will detect 75% of the people who have got the disease, who don’t know they’ve got it,” she told an event at the Confederation of British Industry this week.

“And in doing that you break the chains of transmission, you stop outbreaks from growing in your workplace and in your community, and we get more of the economy back going faster.”

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Alistair Smout and Paul Sandle; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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