Everyone in England to be offered twice-weekly Covid tests, PM to say
Boris Johnson is to unveil a plan for routine, universal Covid-19 tests as a means to ease England out of lockdown, as the government faced a renewed backlash over the idea of app-based “passports” to permit people entry into crowded places and events.
Six months after Johnson unveiled plans for “Operation Moonshot”, a £100bn mass testing scheme that never delivered on its stated aim of preventing another lockdown, all people in England will be offered two Covid tests a week from Friday.
The prime minister is to announce the rollout of the lateral flow tests at a press conference on Monday afternoon, at which he will also outline a programme of trial events for mass gatherings, as well as proposals for potentially restarting foreign travel.
The testing scheme, involving kits for use at home or at test centres, workplaces and schools, is billed as a means to limit any continued community transmission of the virus, in parallel with the vaccination programme, and as a way to track outbreaks of potentially vaccine-resistant Covid variants.
The test-and-trace phone app will also be updated so that when pubs and other hospitality venues reopen everyone in a group will have to register, not just the lead person, with those who test positive asked to share other places they have visited.
Some scientists have expressed scepticism at the plan, noting both the possibility of false negatives with lateral flow tests, and the need for better support for people to self-isolate if they do test positive.
Civil liberties groups and many MPs will also be wary if the new testing system potentially feeds into a regime of Covid certificates, which would use recent tests, vaccination or the presence of antibodies to the virus to determine entry to pubs or mass events. Sometimes also called “Covid passports”, these would be purely for domestic use, and would be distinct from a vaccination record to allow foreign travel.
Over the weekend, the government unveiled plans for nine pilot events, ranging from football matches and a snooker tournament to comedy and business gatherings, to try out the practicalities of Covid certificates, whether using paper or via an app.
Such documents would allow people entry to events if they had been vaccinated, or could show they had recently tested negative for Covid or had antibodies to the virus.
But the day after the pilot events were announced, five of the nine venues insisted they were not taking part in a Covid certification trial, with one saying it had received a “massive backlash” after the government announcement.
Liverpool city council, where four of the events are planned, said these would instead be general tests of how such venues could reopen, including social distancing, ventilation and test-on-entry systems, but were not designed to feed into a certificate trial.
Paul Blair, a co-owner of the Hot Water Comedy Club in the city, which is organising an event on 16 April, said the venue had received abuse on social media and emails accusing it of being part of a “medical apartheid”.
Johnson has suggested businesses would welcome the option to use Covid passport schemes, but he faces a battle to win parliamentary support for the idea. Last week more than 70 MPs, including 40 Conservatives, announced they would oppose the idea.
One option for the government would be to use such certificates for mass events such as sports and for places such as theatres, but not for access to pubs and bars.
The government has only recently gone public about the plans for such certificates, having previously discounted the idea. However, documents seen by the Guardian show research commissioned for the NHS’s test-and-trace system reported as early as December on ways for Covid passports to operate.
The documents include mock-ups of possible app-based passports, and research about possible public attitudes towards using these as a condition of entry to not just events such as football matches or to pubs, but also for family gatherings such as weddings.
In a quote released to promote the new testing system, Johnson hailed the progress with vaccination, and said tests were now “even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted”.
He said: “That’s why we’re now rolling out free rapid tests to everyone across England – helping us to stop outbreaks in their tracks, so we can get back to seeing the people we love and doing the things we enjoy.”
Test protocols in the other UK nations are organised by the devolved governments.
Free testing is already available to frontline NHS workers, care home staff and residents, and schoolchildren and their families. As part of the rollout to the whole population people will be able to order tests to be delivered to their home and visit participating pharmacies to collect boxes of seven.
Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the Spi-B subcommittee of Sage that advises on behavioural science, said testing by itself was “no solution”, noting a rate of false negatives for self-administered lateral flow tests of up to 50%, as well as a lack of contact tracing or support for those self-isolating.
He said: “All in all, the government keeps on seeking quick fixes based on one intervention. What they consistently fail to do is to build a system in which all the parts work together to contain the virus.”
John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussexand also a member of Spi-B – but speaking in a personal capacity – said: “Is twice-weekly testing going to be accompanied by the required support for self-isolation, which currently is insufficient? If not, increased testing helps with the data but not with the practicalities of dealing with the virus.”
Labour said it backed the mass testing plan, but expressed similar worries. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “To break transmission chains and suppress infections, testing must go hand in hand with community public health-led contact tracing to find cases and must be backed up by decent financial support so sick people can isolate.”
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