The briefing document, seen by The British Medical Journal, says the Operation Moonshot programme could see the entire UK population tested each week by early next year. Those who test negative could be given digital immunity passports to return to offices, travel and take part in other normal activities. Success is said to depend on increasing the number of swabs as well as emerging technologies including a 20-minute saliva test being piloted in Salford, Greater Manchester.
The memo, reportedly sent to the Scotland’s First Minister and Cabinet secretaries, said mass testing was a “top priority” for Boris Johnson.
It added: “This is described by the Prime Minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford.”
The project’s cost and scale has not been confirmed by officials but Mr Johnson yesterday outlined plans for millions of daily tests.
He told a Downing Street press conference: “We believe that new types of test which are simple, quick and scalable will become available.
“They use swabs or saliva and can turn around results in 90, or even 20 minutes.
“Crucially it should be possible to deploy these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved – literally millions of tests being processed every single day.
“That level of tests would allow people to lead more normal lives without the need for social distancing.”
Mr Johnson said theatres and sport venues could test the audience on one day, admitting those with a negative result.
He said offices could be opened to those testing negative in the morning “to behave in a way that was exactly as in the world before Covid”.
Mr Johnson added: “We’re hopeful this approach will be widespread by the spring and if everything comes together it may be possible even for some of the most difficult sectors like theatres to have life much closer to normal before Christmas.”
Asked if the technology was close to being ready, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said: “I think it’s likely we will have tests of this sort at some point in the nottoo-distant future, but that covers quite a wide time range.
“It’s important that what we don’t do is pin ourselves to a date and say, ‘By this time this will be achieved’, because that is not the way science moves.”
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance cautioned that some testing methods were still prototypes and “we would be really wrong to assume that this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen”.
The £100billion-plus cost of Operation Moonshot is close to the £130billion annual spend on the NHS in England. Plans would offer a test to anyone with virus symptoms and the close contacts of those with positive results.
People at high risk and those in local outbreak areas could also be prioritised.
Meanwhile a man working in Maidstone, Kent, was forced to make a round trip of more than 400 miles for a virus test – only for his results never to arrive.
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The man, who asked not to be named, was told to go to either Newport in South Wales or Chesterfield, Derbyshire – both about 200 miles away.
He chose Chesterfield and stopped off at his home in Doncaster before returning to Maidstone the following day. But he was unable to book another test after his four children had flu-like symptoms.
The man said: “I told work and they told me to get a test and stay off until I had my results, which never actually came.
“I decided to just book myself a test as I figured if I was OK, they would be OK.
“I can’t book another test anyway, so I’ve no choice but to carry on as normal.”