Boris Johnson’s ‘moonshot’ mass testing regime to try and get life back to normal will cost £100 billion, a leaked memo says.
The radical government plans could see up to 10 million coronavirus tests carried out every day by early next year in a drastic expansion of the existing programme.
It comes after the Prime Minister yesterday effectively put Christmas celebrations on hold, as he warned that draconian new restrictions on gatherings of more than six people could be here for months – while chief medical officer Chris Whitty pointed the finger at ‘Generation Z’ for sparking a surge in cases.
Addressing the nation at the first No10 press conference since July, the PM said the spike in infections seen over the past week left him no choice but to tighten lockdown across England for the first time since March.
In a bid to avoid further reversals, a memo was sent to Nicola Sturgeon and other Scottish cabinet secretaries, outlining mass testing proposals ‘to support economic activity and a return to normal life’, according to the BMJ.
The memo states: ‘This is described by the prime minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford.’
The government currently spends £130bn on the NHS in England each year, so such a move would almost match the amount of funding pledged to the entire health service, which in itself represents some 20 per cent of all public spending.
It also equates to the cost of the nation’s education budget and represents a near-30-fold increase in the UK’s testing capacity, with just 350,000 daily tests being carried out at the moment.
Audiences at indoor and outdoor venues in Salford will be tested on the day in a pilot programme in Salford next month, with those coming back positive being sent home and those found to be clear of the virus allowed in.
However, on top of fears of adding even more long-term financial woe, with debt as a percentage of GDP already at levels not seen since the 1960s, experts warn lab capacity among other issues may mean the plan is not even possible to roll out.
Two of the government’s biggest scientific advisers are among the sceptics, fearing tens of millions of people could be wrongly told to isolate.
Prof Whitty poured cold water on the idea that millions could be tested daily any time soon while chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said it was not a ‘slam dunk that can definitely happen’.
‘I think it’s likely we will have tests of this sort at some point in the not too distant future, but not too distant future covers quite a wide time range,’ Prof Whitty said.
‘And I think it’s important that what we don’t do is pin ourselves to a date and say, ‘By this time, this will be achieved’, because we do have to be absolutely sure that these tests work, and they work at scale.’
Elsewhere on another dramatic day of coronavirus news:
- The UK has announced 2,659 more coronavirus cases and eight deaths as Boris Johnson announces people must ‘limit social contact’ again to curb the coronavirus amid rising infections;
- Oxford and AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine trial has been put on hold for safety reasons after a British volunteer had a ‘serious’ reaction that could have been caused by injection
- Business leaders, MPs and scientists told the Prime Minister not to lock Britain down again, with one think-tank warning a second shutdown would be ‘catastrophic’.
- Health bosses apologised for testing system failures after laboratory backlogs left many people unable to book
- Appearing on Good Morning Britain, Professor Devi Sridha, the Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, said she said two major concerns about the new government plans
Boris Johnson will pump £100 billion – almost the entire NHS budget – into funding a ‘moonshot’ of testing every Briton every week to beat coronavirus, a leaked memo says
A pie chart shows how some 20 per cent of UK public spending is on health care, with the government wanting to spend a similar amount on the Moonshot project
Heathrow boss urges ministers to fast-track wider access to a Covid test his airport has trialled that gives results in just 20 SECONDS
Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye is urging the Government to fast track a Covid-19 test which gives results in 20 seconds.
It comes after the Prime Minister announced plans for mass testing under so-called Operation Moonshot, in which millions of people could be tested every day so they could ‘behave in a way that was exactly as in the world before Covid’.
The new Virolens test, which is said to provide results in 20 seconds, launched on Wednesday following a three-week trial at Heathrow Airport.
The test, which uses saliva taken on a swab, has been developed by British start-up company iAbra and is about to embark on clinical trials in order for it to be certified for medical use.
The company said the test does not need to be administered by healthcare professionals and is repeatable, with each screening device capable of carrying out hundreds of tests per day.
The current gold standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that are conducted in labs use swabs and need to be processed at different temperatures meaning it takes longer to get results.
Workplaces, schools, football stadiums, entertainment venues, GP surgeries and pharmacies are all outlined as potential sites where testing could take place.
Digital immunity passports for those who test negative would also be rolled out to allow safe travel, a return to work and other activities.
The memo states: ‘This is described by the prime minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford,’
However, critics have already slammed the so-called Operation Moonshot due to the apparent lack of input from scientists and public health experts and what seems to be a refusal to tackle issues with existing testing and tracing programmes.
There are fears that most of the technology involved in the plan doesn’t even exist yet, let along the logistical headache that carrying out 10 million daily tests would bring for officials who have struggled with just a few hundred thousand.
Appearing on Good Morning Britain, Professor Devi Sridha, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh said: ’This is a very ambitious plan and will cost around £100billion to deliver, the idea of regularly testing most of the British population by Christmas.
‘My two concerns are first, we are still struggling to get test and trace out just for symptomatic individuals for a few 100,000 people and secondly a lot of those contracts are being awarded to private companies such as Deloitte instead of actually working through the NHS, imagine if that injection of cash was put into the NHS, how much good that could do.’
And Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy also appeared on the programme and they had warned the PM he needed to fix the test and trace system a month ago otherwise we would face a ‘very bleak winter’.
She added: ‘Just yesterday at the dispatch box he didn’t even seem to be able to acknowledge the problems we’ve just been hearing about on Good Morning Britain with the system.
‘I’ve got constituents who just can’t get a test and others that are being sent hundreds of miles chasing around the country to try and do it. And the Prime Minister is rightly saying today through leaked briefings he wants to up the testing capacity, but he’s talking about bringing 10 million tests on stream when people can’t even get one at all.’
The number of tests will progress in stages, the Guardian reports, with the current figure rising to between two and four million in December, before a ‘future vision’ of 10 million early next year.
Furthermore, the huge spending pledge comes against a backdrop of economic crisis, with the UK’s debt pile now bigger than GDP for the first time in decades due to the impact of coronavirus.
Public sector debt has now gone above £2 trillion for the first time in history as the Government was forced to borrow cash to keep UK plc afloat
Ministers borrowed £26.7 billion in July alone, according to the latest data published by the Office for National Statistics.
The ONS said borrowing for July was £28.3 billion more than the same time last year when the public finances were actually running at a surplus and that it represented the fourth highest since records began in 1993.
Economists will feat that pledging another £100 billion would only exacerbate Britain’s growing debt problem.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), said it is unclear how the plan would work given the ‘huge problems’ currently seen with lab capacity.
‘And the notion of opening up society based on negative tests of those without symptoms needs to be approached with caution – both because of the high rate of ‘false negatives’ and the potential to miss those who are incubating the virus,’ Dr Nagpaul added.
Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, chair of infectious diseases, University of Edinburgh, said: ‘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.’
Pictured, graph showing debt as a percentage of gross national product from 1994 until 2020
Debt expressed as a percentage of GDP is now at levels last seen in the UK in the 1960s
The UK’s debt pile is bigger than GDP for the first time in decades due to the impact of the coronavirus crisis. The chart shows that the debt-GDP ratio has been much higher in the past
A pie chart shows public sector spending in 2020-21, including £178 billion on health across the UK. Around £130bn of that is spent on the NHS in England
NEW LOCKDOWN RULES FOR ENGLAND FROM MONDAY
- Max social gatherings SIX PEOPLE
- Applies indoors and outdoors
- Applies in private homes
- Applies in pubs and restaurants
- Does NOT apply to schools or workplaces
- Does NOT apply to weddings, funerals, team sport
- Does NOT apply if household bubbles are bigger than six people
- Police will be encouraged to break up larger groups and issue £100 fines, which will then double on each repeat offence up to £3,200
Dr Joshua Moon, research fellow in the Science Research Policy Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, raised concerns about the plans.
He said: ‘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.’
Dr David Strain, clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and chair of the BMA’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.
‘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 six’ from guidance to law.’
The private sector will be leaned on heavily to achieve the mass testing, according to the leaked documents, with ‘letters of comfort’ signed with big business to get to three million tests a day by December.
GSK is named in the memo as the supplier of tests, laboratory capacity would be provided by AstraZeneca and Serco and G4S would provide logistics and warehousing.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘This country now has the capacity to test for coronavirus on an unprecedented scale and we are going further by investing £500 million in next generation tests, like saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes.
‘We are increasing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October, and the ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results, will significantly increase our ability to fight coronavirus, stop the spread and for our economy to recover.’
Slides presented at the press conference tonight show that younger people are driving the increase in Covid cases
Official figures showed GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in May, although it is still nearly a quarter lower than before the draconian coronavirus restrictions were imposed. In this chart 100 represents the size of the economy in 2016
Public debt will soar as the UK reels from the coronavirus crisis, according to the watchdog’s central scenario. By 2023-4 the liabilities will be £660billion higher than forecast in March
Meanwhile, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, said there were ‘clear plans’ to deal with potential outbreaks in universities, as figures show spikes in cases within age groups between 17 and 29.
Speaking on the Peston show on ITV, she said: ‘There’s been a lot of work with the Department for Education and higher education representatives with the universities and there are very clear plans in place including outbreak plans should there be any cases, but particularly on specific advice to students as they move potentially around the country or switch into different households.’
When asked whether a university could be placed in lockdown if there were outbreaks, she said: ‘In the same way we would look at any environment, whether it be a focus on a workplace or a domestic residence we’ve seen them in family units as well or in a street, if the university was an area where we had a number of different cases, we could see a chain of transmission, then health protection teams would be looking to try and contain that.’
Commenting on whether she thought the Government could achieve Operation Moonshot, she said: ‘Technically there are a number of different tests available, the difficulty is in trying to evaluate all of them and work that through into a programme.
‘We do want to get back to as much normality as we can and any opportunity to do that through a new testing programme or using different testing technology is clearly a good thing to be following, but it’s not quite as simple as just doing that.
‘So I think it’s both the test and the way that it’s handled and used that we need to be working through.’
She described people’s frustrations on being offered a test in distant places as ‘disappointing’.
But when asked about confusing messaging from the Government over testing, she said: ‘I think the message has always been if you have symptoms get a test.’
It comes after it emerged that theatres and sports venues could soon test all audience members and let in those with a negative result under the Prime Minister’s plans to get life in the UK back to normal.
Mr Johnson today announced a pilot programme will be launched in Salford next month which will see audiences at both indoor and outdoor venues tested on the day to see if they are infectious.
Those who test positive for coronavirus will be sent home while those who test negative will be allowed in.
The Prime Minister said if the pilot is successful the measures could be rolled out nationwide as part of its ‘moonshot’ mass testing plans which the Government hopes will pave the way for an end to social distancing.
Mr Johnson earlier said he wanted everybody in the UK to eventually have access to daily coronavirus testing, with pregnancy-style checks providing results in as little as 15 minutes.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street coronavirus press conference this evening that negative tests would effectively provide people with a ‘passport’ which would allow them a ‘freedom to mingle with everybody else who is similarly not infectious in a way that is currently impossible’.
The Prime Minister said he hoped the mass testing approach will be ‘widespread by the spring’.
Mr Johnson told the press conference that up until now testing has been used primarily to identify people who have the disease so they can be isolated from the rest of society.
The PM said that will continue to be the priority with a goal of increasing testing capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October.
But he said that ‘in the near future we want to start using testing to identify people who are negative… so we can allow them to behave in a more normal way’.
He said new types of coronavirus tests which are ‘simple, quick and scalable will become available’ allowing for results in 90 or even 20 minutes and for tests to be administered in their millions everyday.
Mr Johnson said: ‘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.’
He added: ‘Now that is an ambitious agenda, but we are going to pilot this approach in Salford from next month, with audiences in indoor and outdoor venues. And then we hope to go nationwide.
‘There are a number of challenges. We need the technology to work. We need to source the necessary materials to manufacture so many tests. We need to put in place an efficient distribution network. And we need to work through the numerous logistical challenges.
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
‘And as I say, we are not there yet, and I should repeat that, as we manage this period of high demand, it is especially important that if individuals don’t have symptoms, and have not been specifically advised to take a test, they should not be coming forward for a test – because they could be taking a test away from someone who really needs it.’
Mr Johnson said the testing ‘moonshot’ will require a ‘giant, collaborative effort from government, business, public health professionals, scientists, logistics experts and many, many more’.
‘Work is underway – and we will get on at pace until we get there, round the clock,’ he said.
Mr Johnson said he hoped the approach will be ‘widespread by the spring’ but ‘if everything comes together, it may be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to have life much closer to normal before Christmas’.
He added: ‘That gives you a kind of passport… a freedom to mingle with everybody else who is similarly not infectious in a way that is currently impossible.’
But chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance urged caution on the plans as he said there was a lot of uncertainty around the development of accurate saliva tests.
Asked whether the proposed mass daily saliva testing ‘moonshot’ could actually work, Sir Patrick said: ‘Some of them we don’t yet know that they work. So things like lateral flow tests are not yet being used widely, they’ve not been validated.
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
‘There are prototypes which look as though they have some effect, but they’ve got to be tested properly and so there are, as always with technologies, unknowns and we would be completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen. I think this needs to be tested carefully.’
Mr Johnson had said at Prime Minister’s Questions at lunchtime that he wants everybody in the UK to be able to take a daily coronavirus test in order to get life back to normal.
The Prime Minister said his ‘vision’ for the future is for the whole nation to have access to a pregnancy-style test which would reveal within 15 minutes if someone has the virus.
The PM said the so-called ‘enabling tests’ could be used at the start of the day so that workers know for certain whether they are infected and need to stay at home.
The Government is facing growing pressure over the current NHS Test and Trace programme after numerous reports of people being asked to drive long distances to get checked or of checks being unavailable.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock blamed the struggles on people without symptoms booking tests.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson warned that draconian new coronavirus restrictions could be here for months – as chief medical officer Chris Whitty pointed the finger at ‘Generation Z’ for sparking a surge in cases.
Addressing the nation at the first No10 press conference since July, the PM said the spike in infections seen over the past week left him no choice but to tighten lockdown across England for the first time since March. ‘We must act,’ he said.
He signalled that the ‘rule of six’ limit on how many people can socialise together will be in place for some time to come, after partying among the younger generation fuelled a sharp rise. Apart from a vaccine, he said the only other way out before Christmas was a ‘moonshot’ of introducing mass daily testing for everyone, but admitted that would require ‘everything to come together’.
In a direct plea to young people, Mr Johnson said that they should consider their behaviour ‘for the sake of your parents’ and your grandparents’ health’.
Prof Whitty said the numbers of coronavirus case have been increasing ‘much more rapidly’ over the past few days. While the numbers among older people and children remained ‘flat’, in other age groups there were ‘rapid upticks’.
He said among 17 to 18 year-olds and 19 to 21 year-olds the numbers had gone up ‘really quite steeply’ since mid August. He said that data suggested that without action Britain would be on a path ‘extremely similar’ to France where the numbers have continued to rise – cautioning that the situation was likely to be perilous all the way through to Spring.
Government sources have voiced gloom about a ‘difficult six months’ to come. One official cautioned that it was not a scenario of ‘a couple of weeks and we’re back to where we were’, saying the R number was ‘clearly above one’.
From Monday it will be illegal to assemble in groups of seven or more anywhere in England, whether indoors or out.
The limit – sparked by concern that partying young people are fuelling a flare-up – is a dramatic reduction on the maximum of 30 put in place on July 4. It will be enforced by police with £100 fines, doubling on each repeat offence up to £3,200. Only schools, workplaces and a limited number of other locations will be exempt.
Pubs and restaurants will also be legally obliged to collect contact tracing information from customers. Before they were only asked to in government guidance. And Mr Johnson said the government was having to ‘revise and review’ the return of theatres and stadium events, with sports matches facing a 1,000 ceiling on attendance.
Mr Johnson said he was ‘sorry’ that larger households would not be able to meet up, as they would be above the six-person threshold. ‘But as your PM I must do what it takes to stop the spread of the virus.’
The PM told the House of Commons that the spike in infections seen over the past week left him no choice but to act
Data from the Covid Symptom Tracker app, run by King’s College London, shows there were days in March and April when more than 100,000 cases of coronavirus were estimated to have been caught in the UK. But testing figures were showing fewer than 6,500, meaning that the numbers of cases now cannot be compared like for like, because the currently estimated number of new cases is around 3,200 and many of them are now being picked up by tests, whereas only a vanishingly small number were at the start
CORONAVIRUS CASES NOW DO NOT COMPARE LIKE-FOR-LIKE WITH SPRING CRISIS WHEN 100,000 PER DAY WERE CATCHING IT
The Government has warned repeatedly in recent weeks that coronavirus cases are rising in Britain and officials today announced rules on socialising must tighten up again.
Official testing figures show the numbers of people getting positive results has started to return to levels last seen in May, while the country was still in lockdown.
But data shows this comparison is misleading as some scientists estimate more than 100,000 people per day were catching the illness at the end of March but not getting tested.
Data from the Covid Symptom Tracker app, run by King’s College London and healthcare technology company ZOE, showed that the number of estimated cases in the UK on March 30 was 1,779,303 and it had risen by 102,200 from a day earlier.
But official testing then showed only 3,250 new cases, from just over 8,000 tests.
So 3,000 positive cases now, when around 180,000 tests are done each day, does not compare like-for-like because there are so many more negatives.
Rationed testing in the spring meant only a fraction of people who were carrying the disease were actually tested – mostly those sick enough to be in hospital.
Data from the Covid Symptom Tracker, run by King’s College London, shows there were days in March and April when more than 100,000 cases of coronavirus were estimated to have been caught in the UK, but testing figures were showing fewer than 6,500
Official testing figures suggest no more than 6,500 people ever caught the virus in a day, meaning the rises now are approaching scary levels but they are not comparable because testing now catches so many more hidden cases
At times, more than 40 per cent of people getting tested were getting positive results, with a high positive rate showing a large proportion of people who thought they had Covid-19 really did, and many more were probably going missed.
Now, however, the positive test rate is around two per cent, meaning most people who think they have coronavirus actually don’t, so there are likely fewer missed cases.
The new rules follow a rise in cases from 12.5 per 100,000 people to 19.7 per 100,000 in the UK in the last week – with a particular rise in infections among young people.
Infections are most prevalent among the 19 to 21-year-old age group, with 54 cases per 100,000 people.
Mr Johnson told the No10 briefing that he knew the rules had become ‘quite complicated and confusing’ over the course of the crisis.
‘We are responding, and we are simplifying and strengthening the rules, making them easier for everyone to understand,’ he said.
He went on: ‘This rule of six will of course throw up difficult cases, for example two whole households will no longer be able to meet if they would together exceed the limit of six people and I’m sorry about that, and I wish that we did not have to take this step.
‘But as your Prime Minister, I must do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus and to save lives. And of course we will keep the rule of six under constant review and only keep it in place as long as is necessary.’
Mr Johnson said that he has tasked the Cabinet with increasing enforcement of the rules, adding: ‘In future, premises where people meet socially will be legally required to request the contact details of a member of every party, record and retain these details for 21 days and provide them to NHS Test and Trace, without delay, when required.’
The introduction of ‘Covid-secure marshals’ in town centres will also help to boost social distancing, he said.
And enforcement of quarantine rules for arrivals in the UK is also being increased.
Mr Johnson said the Government is ‘working hard’ to increase testing capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October – and he said that the ‘moonshot’ was to introduce daily testing.
He 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.
‘And 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.’
However, Prof Whitty and chief scientific office Patrick Vallance poured cold water on the idea that kind of regime could be in place soon.
Sir Patrick said it was not a ‘slam dunk that can definitely happen’.
And Prof Whitty said while he personally thought saliva tests were likely to be developed, the timescales were highly uncertain.
In a grim assessment of the slog to come, Prof Whitty said: ‘Everybody I think in the country will know, and it has been widely reported that the period over autumn and winter, which is the period when all respiratory viruses have an advantage because people crowd together, more things are done indoors amongst other reasons, it is going to be difficult.
‘So the period between now and spring is going to be difficult because this is a respiratory virus.
‘I think in terms of the existing restrictions, people should see this as the next block of time that may not last for many months, but it is very unlikely to be over in just two or three weeks.’
Asked whether he had abandoned his stated ambition to have the country back towards normality by Christmas, Mr Johnson said: ‘Whether we are going to get things back to normal at all by Christmas, I’m still hopeful, as I’ve said before, that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas.
‘I talked just now about how you could do that. Through that Moonshot of daily testing – everybody gets a pregnancy-style test, a rapid turn-around test in the morning, 15 minutes later you know whether you are infectious of not.
‘You may not know whether you are infected or not, but you know whether you are infectious, or not, and that gives you a kind of passport, a freedom to mingle with everybody else who is similarly not infectious in a way that is currently impossible.’
Mother, 21, travels 90 minutes for a coronavirus test only to be turned away in tears on arrival
By Faith Ridler for MailOnline
Kirstie Penman, 21, travelled from Wrexham to Telford for a coronavirus test, only to be turned away on arrival
A mother was left in tears after traveling an hour-and-a half for a coronavirus test, only to be turned away on arrival.
Kirstie Penman, 21, a student from Wrexham, initially rang her doctor seeking antibiotics for a bad chest but was told she would need to get a test for Covid-19 instead.
After being driven across the English border to Telford for the nearest available test, she was told by a staff member that she could not be tested because she had not received a QR code when she booked.
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