Operation Moonshot is Britain’s hope for returning to normal life according to Boris Johnson’s coronavirus briefing from Downing Street on Wednesday. The PM characterises the Government’s scheme as the “moonshot approach”. But what does Operation Moonshot actually mean?
What is Operation Moonshot?
Operation Moonshot is a plan for mass coronavirus testing which would see millions of COVID-19 tests processed each day.
The scheme would enable results to be given in minutes rather than the current timeframe of 24 to 48 hours.
The test would show people in around 15 minutes whether they are infectious or not “in a way which is currently impossible”.
The scheme will be piloted in Salford from next month with audiences in indoor and outdoor venues before the Government hopes to expand the scheme nationwide.
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But Mr Johnson said he hoped the “moonshot approach” would work and help to enable life to return to somewhat normality.
Speaking from Downing Street, Mr Johnson said: “Up to now, we have used testing primarily to identify people who are positive – so we can isolate them from the community and protect high-risk groups.
“And that will continue to be our priority.
“We are working hard to increase our testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
“But in future, in the near future, we want to start using testing to identify people who are negative – who don’t have coronavirus and who are not infectious – so we can allow them to behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else with the virus.”
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Mr Johnson added: “We think, we hope, we believe that new types of test which are simple, quick and scalable will become available.
“They use swabs or saliva and can turn round 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 processed every single day.
“That level of testing would allow people to lead more normal lives, without the need for social distancing.
“Theatres and sports venues could test all audience members on the day and let in those with a negative result, all those who are not infectious.
“Workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative that morning and allow them to behave in a way that was normal before COVID.
“Those isolating because they are a contact, or quarantining after travelling abroad, could after a period be tested and released.”
Mr Johnson outlined several areas of concern with the scheme including:
- Ensuring the technology works correctly
- Sourcing the necessary materials to manufacture so many tests
- Establishing an effective distribution network
- Working through a number of logistical challenges.
Scientists and health experts have echoed these concerns about the Operation Moonshot scheme.
Speaking to the BMJ, Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said: “This plan transmits unbounded optimism, disregarding the enormous problems with the existing testing and tracing programmes.
“It focuses on only one part of the problem, testing, and says nothing about what will happen to those found positive, a particular concern given the low proportion of those who do adhere to advice to isolate – in part because of the lack of support they are offered.”
He added: “On the basis of what is presented here, this looks less like Apollo 11, which took Neil Armstrong to the moon successfully, and more like Apollo 13.”
Former World Health Organisation director and UCL professor Anthony Costello tweeted: “The PMs Moonshot nonsense (no science, feasibility, evidence) has been earmarked for £100bn, almost the entire NHS budget, w contracts for Astra, Serco and G4S.
“This is waste/corruption on a cosmic scale.”
Clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and the chairman of the British Medical Association’s medical academic staff committee Dr David Strain told the BBC the scheme was “fundamentally flawed”.
Dr Strain said: “The mass-testing strategy is fundamentally flawed, in that it is being based on technology that does not, as yet, exist.
“The prime minister’s suggestion that this will be as simple as ‘getting a pregnancy test’ that will give results within 15 minutes is unlikely, if not impossible, in the timescale he was suggesting to get the country back on track.”
Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham and leader of the Cochrane Collaboration’s COVID-19 test evaluation activities said he was concerned about the lack of involvement of experts in these plans.
Professor Deeks told the BMJ: “The projected benefits are based on optimistic scenarios as to how well these tests would work when they would be available to be used, and how easily they could be deployed.
“I’m horrified that the plans are devoid of any contribution from scientists, clinicians, and public health and testing and screening experts.
“These are plans from the world of management consultants and show complete ignorance of many essential basic principles of testing, public health, and screening.
“The authors appear totally oblivious to the harms that universal screening can create—this is frankly dangerous.”
Speaking on Good Morning Britain on Thursday, Dr Hilary Jones said: “Even if we did, even if we had these tests available at, say, sports events where people are screened before the event, the logistics of that are so immense and so mind-blowing.
“At a cost of an estimated £100billion to do this a year. The same we spend, almost, as the NHS, £130billion. It is actually unachievable.”