Britain will launch a whole city testing scheme in Liverpool this week, offering tests to everyone who lives or works in the city, whether or not they have symptoms of COVID-19, the government announced on Tuesday.
The mass testing scheme is the first in England and is Britain’s latest attempt to “break chains of transmission” and find a better way to use testing to slow the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had promised a “world-beating” national Test and Trace system earlier this year, but the scheme has disappointed.
The government’s scientific advisory body also said last month its impact on CCP virus transmission was marginal.
According to the government, the new pilot has been “made possible by the dramatic increase in testing capacity and new technologies.”
It will use both existing swab tests and new lateral flow tests, which have a rapid one-hour turnaround time and don’t need lab processing, the government said.
Low-cost LAMP (loop mediated isothermal amplification) technology, which can deliver high numbers of tests, will also be used as a method of testing for National Health Service staff working at Liverpool University Hospitals, it said.
Precursor to a Wider Rollout
The mass testing in Liverpool will start on Friday, and Johnson said, if successful, it was a precursor to a wider rollout across the country.
“Dependent on their success in Liverpool, we will aim to distribute millions of these new rapid tests between now and Christmas and empower local communities to use them to drive down transmission in their areas,” he said in a statement.
The testing will be carried out at dedicated testing sites, workplaces, schools, and universities, as well as with kits at home, the government said.
The aim is to provide a more accurate picture of people with asymptomatic cases who can self-isolate, thereby reducing transmission, before the wide availability of a vaccine.
‘Several Big Ifs’
Disease experts have welcomed the mass testing pilot, but with some reservations.
“This is exactly the kind of mass-testing that should have been introduced months ago,” Dr. Luke Allen, a GP academic clinical fellow at the University of Oxford, said in a statement.
“There are several big ‘ifs’ though: people need to show up for testing, testing should happen repeatedly in order to track changes over time, and—most importantly—the track and trace system needs to function effectively,” he added.
Dr. Alexander Edwards, an associate professor in biomedical technology at the University of Reading, said in a statement that “some caution is needed to qualify headlines that mass testing will somehow transform the situation we are now in”.
“Most of our accuracy information comes from controlled lab studies, but tests often perform differently in real-world use,” he said. “Pinning down test performance in the field is surprisingly challenging.”
“It’s hard to see how expanding testing can help alone, but hopefully we’ll learn from the pilot in Liverpool,” he added.
In contrast, Irene Peterson, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, wrote on Twitter that news of the pilot was “a little light in the dark” that might help pin-point asymptomatic cases and break the transmission chain.
— Irene Petersen (@i_petersen) November 3, 2020
The United Kingdom has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, and a second national lockdown is due to come into force in England on Thursday.
Some 2,000 military personnel will be deployed in Liverpool from Thursday to help deliver the tests.
Tests can be booked online, through walk-up at testing centres, or people will be invited to have a test by the local authority. People will receive their results by text and email from NHS Test and Trace.
Those testing positive and their households will be required to self-isolate straightaway while Test and Trace will track their contacts.
Those testing negative will be required to follow “all national guidance,” the government said.
Liverpool was the first city to be placed in the highest of the three COVID alert levels in England’s new three-tier response system. Weekly cases stood at over 410 per 100,000 people as of Oct. 25, the government said.
Reuters contributed to this report.