A new trial of rapid, mass Covid testing has begun in hospitals and will soon be rolled out to schools, universities and care homes, Downing Street has announced, in the latest attempt to push ahead with the so-called Operation Moonshot.
The pilot scheme is under way with tests of asymptomatic NHS staff at hospitals in Manchester, Southampton and Basingstoke, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said, and in the coming weeks this will be extended to hospitals in Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle.
The trial will then begin testing people in schools, universities and care homes in the worst-affected regions, the spokesman said without specifying which these were.
Two types of tests will be used. Hospitals will use lamp tests, an abbreviation for loop-mediated isothermal amplification, which is a swab and saliva method that delivers results in 60 to 90 minutes.
Schools, universities and care homes will use lateral flow tests, a swab test that does not need processing in a laboratory and gives a result in less than an hour, and often significantly less.
The spokesman declined to say how many tests would be sent out over the course of the various pilots, or whether such tests could be used, for example, to see whether university students were safe to return home for Christmas. “This is a pilot, and obviously the purpose of a pilot is to see how this might work,” he said.
One of the pilot schemes testing the rapid saliva tests began several weeks ago at the Royal Manchester children’s hospital. Staff were recruited for the trial to compare results of OptiGene’s Covid-19 lamp test with those from conventional throat and nose swabs.
The OptiGene lamp test was first tested in Southampton in June. The government said the pilot would involve more than 14,000 GP staff, other essential key workers and university staff and their households, with test kits delivered to their home or place of work for them to complete every week.
It is the latest incarnation of what Johnson announced in September as Operation Moonshot, a £100bn plan to deliver up to 10m tests a day, seen by ministers as the best way to bring back some sort of more normal life before an effective vaccine for coronavirus is fully available.
By showing that asymptomatic people do not have Covid, such huge-scale testing could allow workplaces to operate more normally or be used to bring crowds back to theatres and sports venues by testing them before they arrive.
But last week the Guardian reported how an earlier phase of the OptiGene testing – which was supposed to involve all 250,000 residents of Salford, Greater Manchester, being tested regularly – was quietly scaled back after it struggled to even test 250 Salfordians a day. After the pilot was paused, the government said it would now be smaller in scale and focused on “high-risk environments and groups”.
When he announced the mass testing plan in September, Johnson conceded it was hugely ambitious but predicted the system could be “widespread” by spring, adding: “It may be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to have life much closer to normal before Christmas”.
At his most recent Downing Street press conference on Friday, Johnson reiterated his hopes for mass testing, but was much less hopeful and pointedly did not use the “moonshot” moniker.
He said it would take time to implement such a plan, not least as no other country had yet introduced such a widespread programme of asymptomatic testing. He added: “We won’t be able to use testing to get business back to normal quickly.”
One potential issue with the rapid tests is a high percentage of false positives. In the new trial, if someone shows up positive they will be sent for one of the longer-standing tests, where results take a day or longer. Only if they test positive via one of these tests will people move into the system of contact tracing.