Hancock unveils mass-testing trial as workers urged to return to offices

Health secretary pledges extra £500m to fund innovations including “rapid” tests that give results in 20 minutes
Matt Hancock Photo PA

By Kate Forrester

03 Sep 2020

Ministers are set to trial a mass coronavirus testing programme, which will see the general population screened weekly for the virus, as people are urged to return to work and school.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has pledged an extra £500m to expand the government's testing programme, with the initial pilot set to be held in Salford – one of the areas subject to extra lockdown restrictions amid rising rates of infection.

“We need to use every new innovation at our disposal to expand the use of testing, and build the mass testing capability that can help suppress the virus and enable more of the things that make life worth living,” Hancock said.

The trial will initially focus on a "high-footfall location in the city" which contains retail, public services, transport and faith spaces, the Department of Health and Social Care said, as ministers continue their drive to get people back into schools and workplaces.

No time frame has yet been given for when mass testing around the country might be ready.

The UK's testing programme is also set to host other trials, including a rapid 20-minute mobile testing scheme in Hampshire and weekly testing at the University of Southampton and four Southampton schools. The health secretary said testing was "a vital line of defence in combating this pandemic".

He told Times Radio: "We are engaged with about a hundred different companies that have come forward with innovative new tests, British companies, companies from around the world.

"We are constantly testing the tests, verifying they work that they are effective and we will roll them out . We are able to do that with three so far... These are new technologies that need to built at mass scale."

DHSC wants to use "new technology", aiming for tests that are easy to complete, or can give results in minutes.

The Salford trial, which begins today, will see some people invited for a weekly test, with up to 250 tests being carried out a day, to be scaled up to the whole area – which is home to 220,000 people, according to Salford City Council.

It is hoped the measures will help identify cases early, including for those with no or minor symptoms, allowing more people to self-isolate if they need to.

"We are putting half a billion pounds into the next generation of tests," Hancock added.

"The aim here is to have mass testing much more widely, both to be able to find cases of coronavirus and make sure we can deal with them, but also so that we can give  people the confidence if they test negative that they are free of coronavirus and can go about their normal business."

At the outbreak of the pandemic in March, government figures initially pushed back against mass testing being an immediate priority, in the face of emphatic advice from the World Health Organisation.

Today's announcement comes after former health secretary and health select committee chairman Jeremy Hunt called for mass testing to become the norm.  

“I would really want to expand the whole testing programme so we can almost get to a point where we are testing the whole population every week,” he told the Guardian.

“As an intermediate step I’d want to have expanded it by now so that we’re at least testing all NHS staff and all teachers every week, so people can be absolutely confident when they’re using hospitals, when they’re sending their kids to school, that they are coronavirus-free zones.”

Kate Forrester writes for CSW's sister title Politics Home, where a version of this story first appeared

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