Trials of ‘next-generation technology’ could support the rollout of a mass testing programme
Credit: Kirsty O’Connor/PA
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said the UK must “innovate our way out of this crisis” as he unveiled £500m government funding for new technology that it is hoped could deliver coronavirus test results within 20 minutes.
The funding will support trials of a mass testing programme, which could see the general population screened weekly for the virus, as people are urged to return to work and school.
Hancock announced the investment in “next-generation technology” that could allow the government to vastly expand the testing programme, with an 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. We are backing innovative new tests that are fast, accurate and easier to use and will maximise the impact and scale of testing, helping us to get back to a more normal way of life. I am hugely grateful for the work being done on this national effort to strengthen our ability to tackle this virus. While we work on a vaccine we must innovate our way out of this crisis.”
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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 timeframe has yet been given for when mass testing around the country might be ready.
The UK’s testing programme is also being subject to 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 added testing is “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.”
Hancock’s department wants to use “new technology” that could enable 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 to the whole area.
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,” the health secretary 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 had initially pushed back against mass testing being an immediate priority, in the face of 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.”