Ministers have ordered production of up to 50 million new immunity tests as part of what experts hope will be a ‘game-changing’ development in the battle against Covid-19.
A breakthrough by a team of top British scientists means that, by June, people could be able to reliably test whether they have developed immunity to the virus – and then be allowed to return to work and socialise as normal.
The dramatic news comes as Boris Johnson prepares to go back to work in Downing Street tomorrow, having told aides that he is ‘raring to go’ in the fight against the virus which nearly killed him.
Users of the test provide a pinprick of blood for analysis. Then, like a pregnancy test, if two lines appear after a 20-minute wait, people know that they have the antibodies
The pandemic reached another grim milestone yesterday as the UK death toll passed 20,000 – up by 813 in 24 hours.
Ministers have ordered production of up to 50 million new immunity tests as part of what experts hope will be a ‘game-changing’ development in the battle against Covid-19. A prototype is pictured above
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, last month said keeping deaths below 20,000 would be a ‘good outcome’.
The new immunity tests, expected to cost £10, have been devised by scientists at Oxford, working for the Government-backed Rapid Testing Consortium.
Users of the test provide a pinprick of blood for analysis. Then, like a pregnancy test, if two lines appear after a 20-minute wait, people know that they have the antibodies. One line means they are either vulnerable to coronavirus infection or the test has failed.
Under plans being drawn up, the user would take a picture of the positive result and send it to a central unit which would enter their details into a database.
The consortium believes it could produce up to 1 million of the ‘lateral flow’ tests a week by the summer, adding up to 50 million by next year.
Last night, Health Minister Lord Bethell said: ‘This is a great story of how our manufacturers are stepping up to the challenge of Covid, and I am hopeful that their product will make an impact in our battle against this terrible disease.’
There is, however, likely to be scepticism about the plan due to Ministers’ struggle to reach the current target of 100,000 tests a day for those feared to be carrying the virus.
On Friday, a Government website ran out of home virus tests for key workers in just 15 minutes.
The Government plan also defies World Health Organisation advice that countries should not issue so-called ‘immunity passports’ to ease lockdowns because there was no evidence that people who developed antibodies after recovering from the virus were protected against a second infection.
In other developments:
- Ministers were planning to put all travellers from abroad, including returning UK citizens, in quarantine for a fortnight;
- Tory 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady warned Mr Johnson that prolonging the lockdown ‘for longer than necessary would have its own toll of mass unemployment, business failure and catastrophic deterioration of the public finances’, while Tory donor and City grandee Michael Spencer called for the Government to provide a blueprint for easing the measures, with a friend saying ‘it should not continue a day longer than necessary’;
- Chancellor Rishi Sunak set out options for exiting the lockdown during a three-hour summit at Mr Johnson’s Chequers country retreat and championed the Czech Republic’s five -stage plan to lift all domestic restrictions by June 8;
- A Cabinet Minister told this newspaper that it was untrue that Mr Johnson’s illness had made him reluctant to lift the social distancing measures;
- Former Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers called on the Government to open garden centres immediately – a view backed by a new opinion poll
- Tory MPs warned teachers’ unions not to block pupils’ early return to the classroom;
- Home Secretary Priti Patel warned that ‘we are not out of the woods yet’ and urged the public to continue to follow social distancing rules – while vowing to tackle ‘the most sophisticated’ criminals who are seeking to ‘exploit and capitalise’ on the pandemic;
- An investigation by this newspaper established that wealthy tycoons living in the tax haven of Monaco are using British taxpayers’ cash to pay the wages of the staff in their UK companies;
- Police said there had been 53 attacks on 5G masts amid conspiracy theories falsely linking them to the virus – including a mast serving Birmingham’s new Nightingale Hospital;
- There was renewed controversy over the low number of patients being treated in Nightingale Hospitals;lThe global death toll exceeded 200,000.
A Government source last night said: ‘The PM has been doing all the right things and following his doctor’s advice to come back to work – and he is raring to go. He has told the team he will be back at his desk on Monday morning. It’s given everyone a huge lift.
‘Boris is tightening his grip. You are going to see much greater clarity, energy and purpose now.’
The Government is expected to buy up the new tests for use in order of priority, starting with key workers. The consortium’s leader Jonathan Allis said: ‘We are close to picking up 100 per cent of all cases where people have antibodies. Now it is just a question of scaling up the manufacturing process.’
A Government source said: ‘This could be the game changer – a breakthrough moment to help us turn the tide on the virus.’
Britain’s first coronavirus ‘super-spreader’ helped scientists develop game-changing £10 immunity test they hope to produce 1m of a week
By Glen Owen, Political Editor for the Mail on Sunday
The breakthrough in the race to develop what Boris Johnson calls ‘the people’s test’ came through a combination of forensic detective work and cutting-edge diagnostic research at Oxford University.
To design an immunity test with the necessary degree of accuracy – as close as possible to 100 per cent – scientists on the project needed to analyse the blood of those who had been infected with Covid-19, but displayed few, if any, symptoms.
This is where superspreaders such as British businessman Steve Walsh have played a critical role.
Mr Walsh, one of the UK’s first superspreaders, contracted the virus at a business conference in Singapore, before going to the French Alps for a skiing holiday and then returning to his home in Hove, East Sussex – where he was diagnosed on February 6.
By tracing the network of people who came into contact with the 53-year-old – and everyone those people came into contact with – scientists were able to test the antibody levels in those who had only been mildly infected.
Coronavirus ‘super-spreader’ Steve Walsh is pictured above. Mr Walsh, one of the UK’s first superspreaders, contracted the virus at a business conference in Singapore, before going to the French Alps for a skiing holiday and then returning to his home in Hove, East Sussex – where he was diagnosed on February 6
Crucially, the experts, who include Sir John Bell, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Medicine and a world-renowned immunologist, were also able to analyse the blood of sufferers in the early phase of the disease, thus facilitating the ultra-sophisticated ‘baselining’ of ‘neutralising antibody’ levels.
It means Professor Bell and his team are confident that the £10 tests can produce a positive result on immunity – indicated by a double line on the reader – within 20 minutes of taking a pinprick of blood, and to an accuracy level of more than 99 per cent.
The flawed immunity tests which Ministers had imported from China and other countries at the cost of several million pounds were based on the analysis of the blood of patients who had been admitted to hospital with the virus.
This meant the diagnostic techniques were less sensitive, with the tests only able to pick up between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of people who had an immune response to Covid-19.
Six weeks ago, with the realisation dawning on Downing Street that the imported immunity tests were not fit for purpose, Mr Johnson held a ‘testing summit’ to discuss plans for testing both the immunity of the population and the roll-out of the tests for people who are carrying the virus – now the subject of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s contentious 100,000- a-day target.
Crucially, the experts, who include Sir John Bell, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Medicine and a world-renowned immunologist, were also able to analyse the blood of sufferers in the early phase of the disease, thus facilitating the ultra-sophisticated ‘baselining’ of ‘neutralising antibody’ levels. Professor Sir John Bell is pictured left, while Jonathan Allis of Blue Earth Diagnostics is pictured right
A source close to the project said: ‘Boris was very enthusiastic, particularly about the immunity ones, which he called ‘the people’s test’.
‘It raised the cheering prospect of workers being able to brandish an immunity ‘certificate’ or even a wristband and go straight back into normal life.’
As Prof Bell and his team refined the test, entrepreneur Jonathan Allis, the founding CEO of Blue Earth Diagnostic, was tasked by Mr Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell – aided by PR guru Roland Rudd – with establishing its mass production through the Rapid Testing Consortium.
The consortium aims to harness the mass-production techniques of the diagnostic companies Abingdon Health in England, BBI Solutions in Wales, Omega Diagnostics in Scotland and CIGA Healthcare in Northern Ireland, which have the combined capacity to produce up to 50 million immunity tests every year. But with Mr Hancock struggling to hit his own target for testing people who fear they have the virus, the consortium is likely to face scepticism about its ability to produce the hoped-for million tests a week by the summer.
Yesterday, most tests had been booked up through the Government website within an hour of it reopening, and home-testing kits became unavailable less than 15 minutes after bookings began again. However, the project source insisted the companies in the consortium have the capacity to ‘scale up’ production ‘in every corner of the UK’ by adapting the so-called ‘lateral flow’ blood tests which are already in use for conditions such as HIV.
The source said: ‘Jonathan and the team have been working up to 20-hour days, seven days a week – literally around the clock. There is a huge determination to achieve this as quickly as is humanly possible.’
The Treasury is bankrolling the project, and the scientists expect the Government to buy up the kits before deciding how to allocate them after key workers have received them first.
Under plans which are still in their infancy, users would take a picture of the positive result and send it to a central Covid ‘hub’ which would enter the findings on a national database, accessible on a mobile phone app.
The experts also hope that mass, country-wide testing will also shed more light on the mysteries of Covid-19 immunity: how long it lasts, and, most worryingly, whether people can catch the virus more than once.
The mysteries of immunity
The World Health Organisation has warned that ‘immunity passports’ may increase virus transmission because there is ‘no evidence’ that those who develop antibodies after recovering from Covid-19 are protected from further infection.
Certainly the jury is out on whether antibody tests provide reliable evidence that someone has had coronavirus and how long they are immune from the disease, if at all. It means Ministers are taking a big gamble, but one with the potentially huge economic prize of getting millions back to work.
The tests establish the presence of proteins in the blood called antibodies. These will only exist if the immune system has been exposed to the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 and should block virus particles from entering cells and causing infection.
They are different from antigen or ‘swab tests’ which look for the virus itself. Numerous companies have produced finger-prick antibody tests which can be done at home, but none has so far proved accurate enough to meet Public Health England’s standards.
In particular, the tests have given too many ‘false positive’ results, potentially allowing people wrongly to think that they are immune.
The hope is the test developed by the Oxford University scientists have overcome this hurdle.
Boris Johnson says he is ‘raring to go’ and will start work on Monday to ‘tighten his grip on coronavirus crisis and offer more clarity on response’
By Glen Owen, Harry Cole and Brendan Carlin for the Mail on Sunday
Boris Johnson will return from his Chequers convalescence tomorrow determined to ‘tighten his grip’ on a Government which has often appeared to flounder in his absence.
The Prime Minister told aides during a three-hour Covid-19 strategy session that doctors had given him permission to return.
‘I’m raring to go,’ he insisted.
Mr Johnson, who was discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital in Central London two weeks ago, has spent the past week easing back into something closer to a normal workload, making calls to Ministers, working on official papers and holding a series of – sometimes erratic – meetings on Zoom.
A source said: ‘Boris is tightening his grip. You are going to see much greater clarity, energy and purpose now.’
It comes after splits opened up in the Government over how to map a path out of the lockdown, and criticism of Ministers for failing to introduce widespread testing and source adequate supplies of protective equipment for health workers.
During the three-hour Chequers summit, which included Cabinet Ministers such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill and aides including chief adviser Dominic Cummings and No 10 Director of Communications Lee Cain, Mr Johnson was given a detailed briefing on the policy work being carried out on Covid-19.
Mr Sunak presented an economic blueprint based on the ‘best practice’ that has been shown to work in countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and Germany.
It is understood the Chancellor briefed Mr Johnson on a four-point plan to reopen non-essential shops, change working patterns and then open schools – as well as making ‘hygienic measures’ a permanent fixture in Britain’s workplaces.
Mr Sunak highlighted plans in Austria where shops over 400 sq m (4,300 sq ft) and hardware stores and garden centres have already reopened, while in Germany hairdressers are open as long as staff and clients wear protective clothing.
And he championed the Czech Republic’s five-stage plan to lift all domestic restrictions by June 8, with particular focus on the country’s plans to start by opening farmers’ markets and car dealerships.
Mr Johnson, who was discharged from St Thomas’ Hospital in Central London two weeks ago, has spent the past week easing back into something closer to a normal workload, making calls to Ministers, working on official papers and holding a series of – sometimes erratic – meetings on Zoom
Reports last week said Mr Johnson’s serious illness had turned him from a ‘hawk’ who supported an early exit from the lockdown into a ‘dove’ who regarded the protection of the NHS as the overwhelming priority.
But that interpretation is disputed by one Minister, a close ally of the Prime Minister, who said: ‘I don’t think that is right. He is going to start showing some leg on leaving lockdown.’
The Minister added: ‘The PM is moving in tandem with public opinion. I think public opinion is getting ready for things to change.
‘Businesses that weren’t meant to have locked down are saying they are going to start up again.
‘People are doing it already. You can’t keep the lockdown going for ever because people are bored and people want to get out.’
In reference to the elderly, the Minister said: ‘Surely there comes a point at which you say: ‘There may be a risk, but thank you very much – I will take that risk myself. I want to see my grandchildren. I don’t want to live for four years as a hermit’. Meanwhile, young people are beginning to feel, ‘I’m 20, I’m fit, my chances of getting anything are negligible. Why am I locked down?’ ‘
Sources said that in the coming days, Mr Johnson would ‘immerse himself in briefings with his team and set out his priorities for the week ahead’. The Prime Minister is also expected to grill Secretaries of State on their departments’ progress in tackling the virus.
A No 10 insider said: ‘The Prime Minister has been doing all the right things and following his doctor’s advice to come back to work, and he is raring to go. He has told the team he will be back at his desk on Monday morning – it’s given everyone a huge lift.’
Cabinet Ministers warn that for all the planning available, eventually Mr Johnson will have to make a ‘horrible political decision’ about what he believes to be an acceptable level of community infection rates going forward.
One said: ‘It’s very clear that what this comes down to will be what is his tolerated transmission rate? Is it 1,000 new cases a day – 4,000? That is a decision that needs to be taken by the whole Cabinet, not just four stand-ins,’ referring to the so-called ‘quad’ of Ministers who have been minding the shop for Mr Johnson – Mr Raab, Mr Sunak, Matt Hancock and Michael Gove.
The Minister added: ‘The decision comes down to will we have a high tolerance for infection, where things really get back to normal, or a low tolerance where the social distancing carries on for months and we always stand two metres apart.
‘There is a middle path, but that is a decision for politicians now, not scientists. They have set out the consequences, now it is time to decide. It is an inherently political decision.’
Other Ministers are urging the PM to ‘bind Labour’ into any decision on lifting the lockdown to avoid the opposition ‘weaponising’ any future increase in cases.
One said: ‘Keir Starmer is offering to be a grown-up here and work with us, and we should call him out on that.’
Teachers’ unions warned not to ‘get in the way’ of children going back to school when coronavirus lockdown eases
By Brendan Carlin and James Heale for the Mail on Sunday
Teachers’ unions are being warned not to get in the way of getting children back to school and letting their parents get back to work.
Tory MPs issued the alert amid concerns that union bosses were ‘leaning on’ Education Ministers to put off a timetable for schools to reopen.
The row came as Home Secretary Priti Patel said she sympathised ‘as a parent myself’ with the ‘immensely difficult’ plight of parents juggling with childcare and the need to get back to work.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street virus briefing, she gave a ‘clear assurance to the British public that the Government is working night and day looking at how we can move us out of this situation’.
Teachers’ unions are being warned not to get in the way of getting children back to school and letting their parents get back to work. Tory MPs issued the alert amid concerns that union bosses were ‘leaning on’ Education Ministers to put off a timetable for schools to reopen [File photo]
But Ms Patel added it would ‘irresponsible’ to give any timetable now for the reopening of schools not already caring for key workers’ children – stressing the nation ‘was not out of the woods’ yet in the fight against the virus.
However, her comments came amid private concerns from some Conservative MPs that teaching unions are putting up ‘obstacles’ to getting children back to school as soon as possible.
Last week, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) issued five conditions for the return of schools – including a demand that teachers have access to personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks, gloves and aprons ‘where appropriate’.
Education Department guidelines say that staff should instead focus on observing ‘social distancing, handwashing, hygiene measures and cleansing of surfaces’.
NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach also urged Ministers: ‘Do not rush to reopen schools.’ Conservative MP David Morris last night said that the unions were ‘quite rightly concerned about teachers’ welfare and making representations to Ministers, but that must not get in the way of arriving at a timetable for reopening the nation’s schools’.
Mr Morris added: ‘Getting our children back into class is not just vital for their education, it’s vital so that parents can get back to work and help restart the economy.’
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has insisted that ‘no decision has been made on when we will reopen schools’. He added: ‘I can reassure schools and parents that they will only reopen when the scientific advice indicates it is the right time to do so.’
Last night the Education Department said that the latest scientific advice concluded that ‘staff in non-residential education settings do not require PPE, as this is only needed by professionals providing intimate care to people with a possible or confirmed case of Covid-19.’
The NASUWT was approached for comment.
High Street stores will have to close changing rooms, toilets and limit customers when they re-open after coronavirus lockdown, report reveals
ByNeil Craven for The Mail on Sunday
Shoppers will have to follow strict guidelines when high street stores reopen – including being asked to shop alone or to buy new clothes without trying them on.
In a raft of recommendations drawn up ahead of a highly anticipated lifting of the lockdown, retail bosses have been advised to consider closing or restricting access to toilets and changing rooms, restrict the number of shoppers and limit or remove customer seating.
The report, published today by retail trade body the British Retail Consortium, also advises shops to keep cafes and restaurants closed until further notice, erect barriers such as plastic screens at tills and consider using one-way systems around stores to maintain social distancing.
Above, an employee from Trade Point disinfects shopping trolleys outside its north London branch. Recommendations may see cleaning stations installed to provide hand sanitiser and other hygiene equipment; and self-checkout tills, door handles, lift buttons and handrails will be cleaned regularly
In other measures being considered, separate entrances and exits could be used; doors could be kept open where possible; paying by cash will be discouraged; cleaning stations could be installed to provide hand sanitiser and other hygiene equipment; and self-checkout tills, door handles, lift buttons and handrails will be cleaned regularly.
The seven-page document, endorsed by shop workers trade union Usdaw, has been released amid growing speculation over the timing of the Government signalling a reopening of shops.
The latest coronavirus casualty figures made grim reading as deaths passed 20,000. But there are hopes that in the coming weeks the Government could signal a gradual reawakening of the economy.
The Mail on Sunday reveals today that department store giant John Lewis is drawing up a blueprint for a phased reopening programme which bosses say could be ready to activate by the middle of next month.
John Lewis Partnership director of operations Andrew Murphy, who also oversees Waitrose, said it would take up to six weeks to implement and would only be initiated in strict cooperation with Government and health officials.
Other shops including B&Q and Homebase have begun opening stores. Homebase opened 20 yesterday and said it will hold a meeting tomorrow to discuss rolling out the plan to more of its 158 shops.
Under the new guidelines, shops have been asked to consider closing changing rooms or maintain a staff presence to monitor social distancing, and to consider whether it is safe to keep customer toilets open or whether they should be open on request
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: ‘Retailers are closely following developments from the Government on when restrictions might be eased and are starting to plan accordingly.
‘Since the lockdown, many retailers have proved how shops can be run safely and effectively in line with the Government’s social distancing advice. This guidance is the product of retail’s incredible efforts to adapt to exceptional circumstances.’
Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said: ‘Non-food retail should only start trading again when expert public health advice agrees. However, we need to be ready and we need to make sure that the proper preparations and measures are put in place.’
Under the new guidelines, shops have been asked to consider closing changing rooms or maintain a staff presence to monitor social distancing, and to consider whether it is safe to keep customer toilets open or whether they should be open on request.
The BRC suggests firms calculate the area of each store and limit the number of customers accordingly, based on the 2m (6ft 6ins) social distancing rules.
They have also been told to remove promotional fixtures to allow shoppers to move more freely, position staff to advise customers of the etiquette, limit the number of people using lifts and to use barriers to restrict the length of queues.
Store managers have also been told to ‘consider what steps will be taken by managers and staff where customers are not following social distancing measures’.
One store boss said there was little choice but to implement the draconian measures, but added: ‘How can you go clothes shopping without trying on clothes?’