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expert reaction to the Prime Minister’s announcement that government are developing a mass testing plan

At a press conference this afternoon Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the new UK strategy for dealing with COVID-19, including the announcement that the government are developing a mass testing plan.


Dr David Strain, Clinical Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter and chair of the British Medical Association’s Medical Academic Staff Committee, said:

“The mass testing strategy is fundamentally flawed, in that it is being based on technology that does not, as yet, exist.

“Existing technology has been demonstrated to miss up to 1/3rd of people who have COVID-19 in early disease. After a second test 48 hours later, we still miss over a quarter of people. It has been suggested that those who test negative are in some way less infective, but that is by no means certain. Mr Johnson’s assertion that we will be able to use this as a method to get people back to normal is rather premature.

“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. The worry is that comments such as these may undermine the credibility of some of the other very responsible measures that were announced, notably the halting of the larger social gatherings, delaying the reopening of large venues and moving the “rule of 6″ from guidance to law.”


Dr Joshua Moon, research fellow in the Science Research Policy Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: 

“The key point that the Prime Minister made is this: “But in future, in the near future, we want to start using testing to identify people who are negative” which is simply not possible. 

“Tests identify individuals who are positive and therefore should self-isolate, while a negative results means a lot more possibilities. 

“A negative result could be that the individual is truly negative and therefore not infectious, or it could be that the individual is infected but early in the incubation period so isn’t testing positive yet, or it could be that the test itself didn’t capture enough viral material on the swab or saliva to test positive. In only one of these cases should the person be moving around as normal.

“On top of this, mass testing can and likely will result in higher numbers of cases being found. This means two interrelated problems: first, more cases means more contacts which means more burden on an already over-stretched tracing system. 

“Second, more cases and contacts means more people self-isolating which further affects peoples’ mental health if they are left unsupported like they are now. 

“Finally, the current crisis in testing capacity just goes to show that the UK government’s assessments of testing capacity are not necessarily all that accurate. Given this, how can we even trust that this ‘moonshot’ will actually happen in practice rather than just a theoretical number?

“The Prime Minister also said “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.”  This is again false, a negative test does not mean that the individual is not infectious. This also applies for schools and workplaces.

“Do I think this moonshot will get us back to some sort of normal before Christmas? I certainly hope so, but I’m not taking any giant leaps yet.”


Prof Jose Vazquez-Boland, Chair of Infectious Diseases, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The current Test & Trace system is too health-care (i.e. NHS)-centric which is too rigidly organised, based on large centralised laboratories which impose challenging sample-handling logistics and cannot flexibly respond to local needs and demand. To be more successful it requires a broader public health approach with strong local input.  The focus of testing currently remains on confirmation of suspected cases (people with symptoms), thus missing the point that most community transmission comes from those who are asymptomatic.

“Only a mass screening programme, such as this alternative plan announced by the prime minister, which involves the regular testing of all the population for asymptomatic transmitters can keep covid-19 under control and eventually lead to its eradication. This can be achieved by effectively mobilising all locally available laboratories (research, academic, etc) across the country in a coordinated network.”


All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:


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