London — Asdeaths continue to rise across the country despite a strict, nationwide lockdown, the British government is piloting a mass-testing program it hopes will allow the country's beleaguered businesses to open back up and stay afloat until a vaccine is widely available.
Since last Friday, every single person in the northwest English city of Liverpool has been encouraged to get a free, government-provided COVID-19 test, whether they have any symptoms or not. The idea is to identify as many asymptomatic virus carriers in the city as possible, so they can isolate themselves and have their contacts traced before they have a chance to spread the disease further.
Army troops were sent to the region to help administer the tests and, as of Friday, about 44,000 of Liverpool's 500,000 residents and workers have been tested. About 250 people have tested positive, none of whom were exhibiting any coronavirus symptoms. If someone tests positive, they're required by law to self-isolate, under penalty of a steep fine.
In September, as the world waited for news of a possible vaccine, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out his "moonshot" plan to test millions of people across the U.K. to get a handle on the epidemic.
Mass testing programs, by identifying asymptomatic carriers of the virus so they can isolate sooner, have helped countriesand successfully manage their coronavirus epidemics. The U.K. is one of the first Western countries to plan a similar attempt.
One barrier to Johnson's plan, however, has been testing capacity. When the ambitious project was announced, Britain didn't have the lab resources to process anything near the number of tests that would be required for a population-wide testing program.
Now the government says it has purchased new "lateral flow" tests, which it claims operate a bit like pregnancy tests, give results in around 20 minutes, and don't require lab work. Public health officials say the new tests are good at detecting COVID-19, but some scientists have voiced concerns about their efficacy.
"I am really concerned that people are not given information to understand what the results mean," Jon Deeks, a professor at the University of Birmingham has been assessing the accuracy of various COVID-19 tests, told Britain's Guardian newspaper. "A negative test indicates your risk is reduced to between a quarter and one half of the average, but it does not rule out COVID. It would be tragic if people are misled into thinking that they are safe to visit their elderly relatives or take other risks."
Finding vs. stopping COVID
This week, as the U.K. became the first European country to record more than 50,000 coronavirus deaths, the government announced that it would expand the mass-testing pilot program beyond Liverpool to other COVID-19 hotspots around the country, including parts of London.
Britain's health department said it would start by sending 600,000 of the new "lateral flow" tests to 67 areas — enough to test around 10% of each area's population — and that it would send more every week.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped the program would find COVID-19 "wherever it is, especially in those high prevalence areas."
But the head of Britain's test and trace program, Baroness Dido Harding, said only about 54% of people who test positive for COVID-19 in the U.K. are believed to be self-isolating as required. British media reports have suggested some people may decline to participate in the mass testing program to avoid the possibility of a positive result, which would require them to miss work.
"Much as I would love that testing and tracing on its own would be a silver bullet to holding back the tide of COVID, unfortunately the evidence in the U.K. and in every other country in Europe is that's not the case," Harding told Parliament.