TENS of thousands of Brits will be sent coronavirus home tests to seek out asymptomatic spreaders, the Health Secretary has announced.
Matt Hancock has said bringing in screening was a “huge” priority as the Government aims to re-open the economy and slash quarantine times.
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He said some of the new tech being evaluated can give results in as little as ten minutes.
Ministers are now working with dozens of firms to introduce population-wide testing.
Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is a really, really important drive that we have across Government to bring in mass testing, population-wide testing.
“The new technologies for testing that are coming on stream now are incredibly important.
“At the moment you have to send off a test to a laboratory and get it back and all the logistics of that takes time, it’s also quite expensive.
“We’re testing some of these right now in Porton Down, in our scientific labs, and the mass testing, population testing, where we make it the norm that people get tested regularly, allowing us therefore to allow some of the freedoms back, is a huge project in Government right now with enormous support.”
Millions of on-the-spot Covid tests are already being rolled out nationally to help rapidly snuff out local outbreaks.
The “ground-breaking” checks take as little as 60 minutes to confirm whether patients have coronavirus.
The pioneering tests can also spot flu, allowing health bosses to make instant isolation decisions – particularly in winter when chest infections are common
Mr Hancock declined to say when mass testing would be available but said that it would be scaled up over the coming months.
“We’re ramping it up over the remainder of this year. I’m not going to put a firm deadline on it. The answer is we’re working as fast as we can,” he said.
“This moonshot to have testing ubiquitous and available to reopen all sorts of things to reduce the burden of the quarantine arrangements, which nobody wants to have in place, to allow us to reopen parts of the economy, that is an incredibly important project within Government right now.”
It has been suggested that routine mass testing could see a return of packed sports stadiums and live music events, with other parts of society able to operate more safely.
Initial testing capabilities would not have been able to cope with a population-wide programme – with some tests taking days to be returned.
But the recent introduction of rapid tests – some providing results in as little as 90 minutes – have changed the way tests can be delivered.
It comes as health officials announced plans to ramp up the coronavirus infection survey across Britain.
The Office for National Statistics research aims to increase to include 400,000 people – up from the current 28,000.
The ONS has also partnered with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to extend the survey across the four nations – making this the UK’s largest Covid-19 surveillance survey.
The infection survey has previously involved people who have already signed up on a volunteer list with ONS, having taken part in past studies.
This expanded study will provide extensive, weekly data on the spread of infection, supporting rapid testing and diagnosis of Covid-19 both nationally and in areas of concern – with testing in the North West of England being prioritised.
Letters have already been sent out to tens of thousands of homes inviting new participants to take part.
Anyone who receives a letter asking them to participate in the study is encouraged to do so.
We are developing the capacity to test for coronavirus on an unprecedented scale
Mr Hancock said: “We are developing the capacity to test for coronavirus on an unprecedented scale and undertaking one of the biggest expansions of surveillance testing we have ever seen.
“This ONS survey will be a crucial part of this work – improving our understanding of the rate of infection in the population and how many people have antibodies.
“This will allow us to further narrow down the areas potentially affected by local outbreaks and continue our fight to curb the spread ahead of winter.”
Mr Hancock was speaking after the Government faced criticism for axing the public health body in England in the middle of the pandemic.
Critics have expressed dismay Public Health England (PHE) is being dismantled during the crisis, but Mr Hancock said delaying the change would have been “wrong”.
The new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) will take in some of PHE’s responsibilities along with the NHS Test and Trace programme and the work of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
The organisation, headed by Tory peer Dido Harding, will respond to health threats including infectious diseases, pandemics and biological weapons, he said.
Mr Hancock, quizzed about the timing of the PHE announcement, told Sky News: “My responsibility is to make sure that the pandemic response is the best it possibly can be and that’s why I’ve taken this decision now.
“One of the lessons from the crisis, for me, is that if something is the right thing to do, then delaying doing it is the wrong thing.”
On the appointment of former TalkTalk boss Baroness Harding as interim executive chairwoman of the NIHP, he told LBC: “Anybody with enormous experience like Baroness Harding will have had to face challenges in their professional career.
“I think having somebody with enormous experience, both running very large organisations in the private sector and as the chair of the board of NHS Improvement the last three-and-a-half years, she has what it takes to lead this organisation, to get it set up.
“The key thing now is to make sure that there is a seamless impact on the coronavirus response, actually that that is strengthened, and I think her leadership will be an important part in that.”
But Labour said breaking up PHE during the pandemic is “irresponsible” and “risky”, with shadow health secretary Jonathon Ashworth saying structural reorganisation is “time consuming and energy sapping”.
Richard Murray of the King’s Fund said: “Undoubtedly, there are questions to be answered about England’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, but the middle of a pandemic is not the time to dismantle England’s public health agency.”
Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society of Public Health, said: “We question the timing of an announcement to scrap our national public health agency in the midst of a global pandemic and before any public inquiry any has started, let alone reported.”
Meanwhile, data from official agencies across Britain show more than 57,000 deaths involving Covid-19 have been registered in the UK.