The UK could get back to normal by Christmas if the rapid coronavirus testing being trialled by the Government is successful, Matt Hancock said today.
The Health Secretary, who has announced a £500million investment in a mass on-the-spot saliva testing regime, said it was the ‘best shot’ at ending social distancing.
Although treatments for the virus are improving, unless a vaccine is found it still cannot be cured or prevented completely.
So keeping track of the bug and squashing it out of communities is the only way to prevent more people ending up in hospital and dying.
When asked about ending social distancing, Mr Hancock said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: ‘I hope that if this mass testing regime comes off, if the new technologies we’re working so hard on work, or we manage to get a vaccine between now and then – which we can’t rule out – then I hope we can have the happy and loving Christmas that people yearn for.’
However as the Health Secretary promises testing will get Britain out of its current situation, the official testing regime is rationing swabs and making some people travel more than 100 miles to get them.
The tests – of which around 180,000 are done each day – are being used more in areas that are in local lockdowns or at risk of facing extra restrictions.
As a result, people who feel unwell in less badly-affected areas of the country are struggling to access the swabs and some report being told to drive for hours to centres in other cities, counties or even countries.
In a bid to speed up testing, the Department of Health today announced it was opening a new laboratory in Loughborough that will be capable of processing 50,000 tests per day.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced the Government is investing £500million in mass rapid testing for the coronavirus
Testing has increased vastly from no more than 13,000 tests per day at the start of April to around 150,000 in July and 200,000 in August
Britons who show Covid symptoms can apply for drive-through tests, but some have revealed they are directed to centres more than 100 miles away (Pictured: A family member administers a self-test to a child at a station in Leicester)
The Health Secretary has defended the current testing system and said: ‘At the moment the system works well. Of course there are operational challenges from time to time but it works well.
‘And we’re finding a higher and higher proportion of people in the country who have coronavirus and getting them tests so they can be looked after.
‘But absolutely we need to roll out more testing – we have done throughout this crisis and today’s another step in solving some of those problems with the existing technology.’
£5 RAPID TESTS ALREADY BEING EVALUATED BY PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND
Rapid pregnancy-style tests for Covid-19 could be approved within weeks, according to a leading scientist.
Sir John Bell, an Oxford University scientist and key Government adviser, said the cheap devices were currently being assessed by scientists at Public Health England.
He claimed they could be sold on Amazon or Boots for as little as £5 if they are proven to be over 90 per cent accurate.
Professor Bell said the devices, that are ‘no larger than a teacup’, plug into a socket in the wall and process swabs within an hour.
One from the US which is currently under review is able to process a sample in the time it would take for a person to have a shower or eat their breakfast, he claimed.
The UK is currently relying on PCR swab tests which take at least 24 hours to turnaround after being sent to a laboratory.
Home test kits are already part of the Government’s testing scheme but they still need to be sent to the laboratory. Less than seven per cent come back in the 24-hour target time.
There are at least four rapid tests being trialled in hospitals and care homes. But they are clunky and not designed to be taken at home.
Sir John, a regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, believes mass screening will become possible with rapid home kit tests.
This morning he said the rapid testing was Britain’s best chance at getting back to normal.
The Government has announced it is pouring £500million into trialling and manufacturing tests that can be done on the spot using people’s saliva.
These can give a positive or negative result in just 20 minutes, compared to the current lab-based swabs that can take days to complete.
Main pilots of the portable ‘lab in a van’ tests will take place in Salford, Southampton in Hampshire.
Mr Hancock refused to put a date on when the tests would be available more widely to people around the UK but he said it would be ‘in the coming weeks and months’, appearing to be planning for them to be in use by the winter.
Experts say that winter is likely to bring a resurgence in cases, hospitalisations and deaths caused by Covid-19 because viruses tend to spread more effectively in colder weather and the country will also have to deal with the flu at the same time.
On Radio 4 this morning the Health Secretary said: ‘Short of a vaccine this is the best chance we have of reducing social distancing whilst controlling the virus, especially with winter coming with all the challenges that brings.’
He said that hoped the testing would allow people to have a ‘happy and loving Christmas’ with their friends and family.
But cautioned: ‘We will of course do everything we can to keep people safe. We can’t say that absolutely yet.
‘But let us all try to just pull together, do the social distancing, back all these new innovative technologies that scientists are coming up with. And then, just maybe, we can have that Christmas that everybody wants to see.’
The £500 million funding package will support trials of a 20-minute Covid-19 test and efforts to explore the benefits of repeatedly testing people for the virus.
Money will go towards launching new community-wide repeat population testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester.
Existing trials in Southampton and Hampshire, using a no-swab saliva test and a rapid 20-minute test, will also be expanded through the new funding.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said saliva-based testing will also be used in the pilot in Salford, which will involve the city council and other local partners.
A select number of residents will be invited for a weekly test, with the pilot performing up to 250 tests a day.
The initial focus will be on high-footfall areas of Salford, such as shopping centres, public transport and places of worship.
The project’s aim is to identify positive coronavirus cases early, including for those with no or minor symptoms, so people can self-isolate.
‘The second use of testing,’ Mr Hancock added on Radio 4 this morning, ‘is to remove some of the restrictions that we currenrtly have.
‘Because if you test and you test negative, you may catch the virus in a few days’ time but we know that you’re negative now. And if we can get to the point where regular testing is possible then you’re pretty confident that you don’t have it.
‘At the same time we do catch those positive cases, so that allows people more freedom and it allows us to have the confidence to be able to lift some of the social distancing measures and allow people to get back to normal, get back to the things they love, confident that they’re not spreading the virus.’
The positivity rate of coronavirus tests in the UK has remained flat since June, showing that the proportion of people testing positive is not changing drastically – this suggests the rising number of cases is linked to the rising number of tests
Twickenham’s testing centre was empty despite callers being told no tests were available
At Greenwich there were very few visitors throughout the whole of Tuesday
However, as the Government begins its trials of tests that it hopes will become widespread, members of the public are still trying to get hold of drive-through swab tests that have been running for months.
Even this service does not seem to be working well.
People report being instructed to drive dozens of miles, some of them more than 100 miles or even from Suffolk to Scotland, to their closest available same-day test.
A MailOnline investigation discovered testing centres in Twickenham, Heathrow and Greenwich were practically empty despite callers being told no slots were unavailable.
A number of people in the capital needing swabs have now come forward to complain they had been told none could be taken in the city.
One, who landed back in the UK from a holiday abroad on Saturday, was told she had to call 119 to organise a test after her friend tested positive.
She said: ‘I was told there were no tests in the whole of London and to call back at 8pm.
‘The same thing happened when I called back at 8pm – they told me the closest test I could get was 80 miles away, despite living in the capital city.
‘I ended up calling four times and trying to get an appointment and was told the same thing each time. Three out of the four times I was told they didn’t even have any home testing kits to send me.
‘I ended up hiring a car and just turning up to the Twickenham testing centre to see if I could chance it.
‘It was completely empty and despite being told four times that I couldn’t get a test, I was tested straight away without an appointment or a wait.’
JEREMY HUNT CALLS FOR MASS TESTING IN SCHOOLS
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for secondary school teachers to be regularly tested for Covid-19 to improve parent confidence that classrooms are virus-free.
The Commons Health Committee chairman backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, whose early coronavirus mortality modelling helped influence the Government decision to instigate the lockdown in March, for ‘rapid testing’ in schools.
His comments came as pupils returned to school for the start of the new academic year, the first time some of them had been in class since the lockdown was introduced six months ago.
The ex-cabinet minister told BBC Radio 4: ‘We know something now we didn’t know back in January, which is that about 70 per cent of the people who transmit coronavirus don’t have any symptoms at all, and so that makes it much harder to get public consent for things like sending people back to school or going back to offices and so on, because it is a silent transmitter and even a silent killer sometimes.
‘The way you get round that is by having very quick, very effective, large-scale testing.
‘I think, in fairness to the Government, it is heading in this direction, but we could be much more systematic about it if we really wanted to raise confidence.
‘If, for example, we said that every secondary school teacher was going to be tested twice a week, then that would really give people confidence that if they were sending their kids back to school, they weren’t sending them into a zone where they might pick up the virus.’
Defending the testing system – the drive-through centres still account for the majority of swabs taken – Mr Hancock said it is ‘working well’ and urged people to keep using it.
He said on BBC Breakfast: ‘If you have symptoms, please come forward and get a test. It is straightforward, it is easy and the vast majority of people get one close to their home.’
He said the issue with people arranging appointments close to home was part of the reason why the Government was investing in trials of quicker Covid-19 tests.
One professor said the change should have been made over the summer when the country was ‘relatively Covid-secure’.
Professor Alan McNally, from the University of Birmingham, told the Today programme: ‘I don’t think the time is right. I think the time was right to think about scaling up testing to the wider community and asymptomatic testing over the summer when we were relatively Covid-secure, knowing that autumn and winter would come.
‘Ideally we would be far more advanced in our ability to handle what we’re already beginning to see, an increase in requirement for Covid testing and respiratory infection testing.’
Results from the rapid test trials will inform how regular repeat community testing could be scaled up across the country.
In Southampton, the second phase of a no-swab saliva test pilot is due to begin this week.
It will see a weekly testing model trialled with more than 2,100 pupils and staff across four schools.
The work is led by a partnership of the University of Southampton, Southampton City Council and the NHS.
Meanwhile in Hampshire the pilot of a rapid 20-minute coronavirus test will be expanded ‘to further explore the applications of mobile testing in different settings’, the DHSC said.
Funding will also be used to extend capacity for existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing currently being used in the UK.
Baroness Dido Harding, interim executive chairwoman of the National Institute for Health Protection, the body replacing Public Health England, said: ‘New testing technologies and methods are vital to keep the system evolving and improving, especially as we assess how routine testing could help pick up cases of the virus earlier.
‘We will continue to scale up our testing capacity by expanding our network of testing sites and investing in new technologies to reach even more people through NHS Test and Trace.’
The Department of Health and Social Care insisted its Test and Trace programme was working and claimed it was testing ‘hundreds of thousands of people’ every day.
But it would not say how many had been tested in London, only that ‘To make sure we stay in control of this virus we are targeting our testing capacity at the areas that need it most’.
Heathrow’s testing facility had a few cars come through but did not seem to be used fully
The Government released figures today showing 186,500 tests had been carried out today
The latest numbers showed that a further 1,295 people have now tested positive for the virus
COVID-19 HERD IMMUNITY ‘MAY BE CLOSER THAN THOUGHT’
Britain may be closer to herd immunity against Covid-19 than previously thought because surveillance studies are inherently flawed, top scientists said today.
According to research looking at antibody test results, just seven per cent of Britons and 17 per cent of Londoners have been infected and recovered from the disease.
Experts made these estimates by testing random swathes of people for coronavirus antibodies in their blood, produced by the body in response to the illness.
It’s thought that at least 60 per cent of a population need to have caught the virus for the group to reach herd immunity, which is when a disease runs out of room and can no longer spread because too many people are immune to it.
In an editorial in the British Medical Journal today, scientists would not say how wrong estimates might be but cautioned surveillance studies could be ‘dramatically underestimating’ infection rates.
This, they say, is because the studies do not test for all forms of antibodies, including those found in saliva which may signal mild or asymptomatic cases.
Most research into past infection has looked for the presence of IgG and IgM antibodies, the most common types, which are found in the blood and protect against viral infections.
Another type of antibody – called IgA – is not being routinely tested for. IgA is found in mucous and saliva in the mouth, nose and respiratory tract – the main sites Covid-19 uses to enter the body.
Those with these types of antibodies likely fended off the infection in its earliest stages, before it was able to burrow deep into lungs and spread through the blood.
In Luxembourg, IgA were found in 11 per cent of people compared with 2 per cent who tested positive using more conventional blood tests.