Up to 10% of England’s population could be tested for coronavirus every week after government officials asked local health chiefs to deploy 30-minute saliva kits in an acceleration of Boris Johnson’s controversial “Operation Moonshot” mass screening plan.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, NHS test and trace claims it is embarking on an “important new front in our fight against coronavirus” and asks all directors of public health to sign up to receive rapid-result test kits for up to a tenth of their populations every week, to contain outbreaks and preserve freedoms.
If delivered, it could result in a huge increase in national testing – up to 5m tests weekly from the current rate of about 300,000 so-called PCR tests a day, carried out by swabbing the nose and throat.
Last week Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told parliament the government had bought “many millions” of saliva tests made by the company Innova. Johnson said on 16 October that the tests would become available “to help control localised outbreaks” but the latest strategy also extends beyond saliva test trials announced for schools, universities and care homes.
In the leaked letter, Alex Cooper, director of rapid testing at NHS test and trace, said: “Each director of public health will be eligible to receive on a weekly basis the number of tests equivalent to 10% of their population.”
The rollout will be “phased” with areas under tier 3 restrictions – such as Liverpool and Manchester – prioritised, with the potential to test the whole local population every 10 weeks.
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