NEW YORK – The UK government plans to ramp testing for SARS-CoV-2 to half a million kits processed per day by the end of October in a bid to reopen the country after months of social distancing measures to control the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that the new "moonshot" plan, as the government refers to it, will be based on using rapid testing of nasal swabs and saliva samples using platforms with a turnaround time of 20 to 90 minutes. He did not specify the technology or any manufacturers the government is liaising with, or if the tests are yet available.
"Up to now, we have used testing primarily to identify people who are positive – so we can isolate them from the community and protect high risk groups. And that will continue to be our priority," said Johnson in prepared remarks. "But in the near future, we want to start using testing to identify people who are negative so we can allow them to behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else with the virus."
Such mass testing would allow people to "lead more normal lives, without the need for social distancing," Johnson stressed. For instance, theaters and sports venues could test audience members on the days of events, allowing those with negative results to attend. Those isolating after a trip abroad could similarly be tested and released.
Johnson said the government planned to pilot the testing approach at venues in Salford, a city near Manchester, in October. If the pilot is successful, the government would then go nationwide. Johnson noted that the government still needs the technology to work and will need to source the materials to manufacture the tests needed. "We need to put in place an efficient distribution network," he said. "And we need to work through the numerous logistical challenges."
Johnson said the government hopes its mass testing approach will be widespread by the spring of 2021. "If everything comes together, it may be possible even for challenging sectors like theaters to have life much closer to normal before Christmas," he said.
The UK has been among the countries hit hardest by the pandemic in Europe. Since December 2019, there have been roughly 350,000 confirmed cases and more than 40,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Johnson himself contracted and was hospitalized for the disease.