UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke earlier of his hopes to increase daily testing for COVID-19 to 500,000 by the end of next month, touting this as a means of facilitating a return to a more normal life.
Critics have weighed in on leaked documents said to reveal the UK government’s ambitious plans to increase mass testing for COVID-19, slamming them as a “waste on a cosmic scale”, writes Sky News.
The proposals, suggested as outlining the goal of reaching up to 10 million tests per day by early 2021, in a huge increase from the current 350,000 a day, would run up costs of about £100bln, according to a briefing memo cited by medical journal The BMJ.
The entailed expenses would amount to almost as much as the government spends annually on the National Health Service (NHS).
The leaked documents seem to fall in with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans, outlined on Wednesday at a Downing Street news conference, to ensure that millions of people are tested for coronavirus daily, in what he characterised as the “Moonshot approach”.
The UK government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE) warned that the cheaper and faster kits required for mass testing would be less likely to produce correct results, as opposed to the NHS Test and Trace kits currently in place.
“…In a population with low infections, twice-weekly tests with 99 per cent specificity would lead to 41 per cent of the population receiving a false positive over six months,” it said in a document published Friday.
Anthony Costello, a former World Health Organisation director and UCL professor, referred to the Prime Minister’s “Moonshot nonsense” as “waste/corruption on a cosmic scale”.
Remember apps? Immune passports? The PMs Moonshot nonsense (no science, feasibility, evidence) has been earmarked for £100bn, almost the entire NHS budget, w contracts for Astra, Serco and G4S. This is waste/corruption on a cosmic scale. https://t.co/tXLCMvYs5n
— Anthony Costello (@globalhlthtwit) September 9, 2020
Other critics also shot down the government’s ambitious proposals.
“This plan transmits unbounded optimism, disregarding the enormous problems with the existing testing and tracing programmes,” Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was quoted as saying by The BMJ.
The expert continues:
“It focuses on only one part of the problem, testing, and says nothing about what will happen to those found positive, a particular concern given the low proportion of those who do adhere to advice to isolate – in part because of the lack of support they are offered.”
Dr. David Strain, clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and chairman of the BMA’s medical academic staff committee, suggested the mass testing strategy was “fundamentally flawed”.
“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,” he said.
Some experts, however, were more hopeful regarding the government’s plans. Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, Chairman of infectious diseases at the 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, can keep COVID-19 under control and eventually lead to its eradication.”
Mass Testing Rollout
According to the cited Whitehall briefing memo, there are plans to roll out mass testing in workplaces, sports stadiums, entertainment venues, GP surgeries, pharmacies, schools and other local sites.
Those who test negative would be given digital immunity passports enabling them to engage in more normal activities.
However, the memo acknowledges that the government is staking on technology that “currently does not exist”, such as a swift 20-minute saliva test currently being piloted in Salford, Greater Manchester.
As Boris Johnson spoke on Wednesday to announce a ban on social gatherings of more than six people in the UK from Monday, he added that while testing had been primarily used to identify people who are positive, he wanted to begin testing to “identify people who don’t have coronavirus and who are not infectious”.
Touting this as a means of facilitating a return to normal life, the Prime Minister said:
“…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.”
Downing Street reportedly plans to enlist the aid of private companies such as GSK, AstraZeneca, Serco and G4S to help implement the proposals.