What is No 10’s ‘moonshot’ Covid testing plan and is it feasible?

“Mission Team”, “Moonshot Headquarters” and “Mission Analysis”, the “future vision” is 10m tests a day in early 2021. But the technology doesn’t yet exist – ring any alarm bells? This PM loves to clutch at straws. Don’t hold your breath! – Owl

Sarah Boseley www.theguardian.com 

They call it the “moonshot” – and it is as ambitious as any space adventure.

This is the name given to the government project that aims to ramp up testing to such a scale that it will return the country to some kind of normality. But is it feasible? And what about the cost?

Two internal government documents seen by the Guardian give an indication of the task, and the huge difficulties ahead.

The underlying proposition is simple.

As the documents explain, mass testing of the population on a very frequent basis would allow us all to know who is clear of the virus and allow those people to mix freely again.

The economy and British society as a whole could re-open safely. It would break the chain of transmission. Testing and tracing on this scale would mean the virus would be driven down into such low levels it would be almost eradicated.

One of the documents, titled UK Mass Population Testing Plan, is a briefing memo sent to the first minister in Scotland, which explains it could cost £100bn.

That might be a price worth paying if it worked – however, most of the technology simply does not yet exist. Getting 10 million people tested every day – however quick and simple the process – is a very big logistical ask for a country that has struggled to deliver a few hundred thousand.

The second is a 26-page PowerPoint presentation from the Department of Health and Social Care entitled: Moonshot mobilisation: briefing pack, dated 21 August.

The document is full of diagrams and charts, with pages headlined “Mission Team”, “Moonshot Headquarters” and “Mission Analysis”.

The narrative in both make it clear the prime minister believes the moonshot is the only way out for the UK economy in the face of a probable winter surge. He wants it to be UK-wide.

The documents have been shared with the devolved governments. They have also been to Sage – the government’s scientific advisory committee – and to the Treasury, which is modelling the impact to the British the economy.

And various companies making tests have been sounded out – drawing up much of the plan and leading on various “missions” are employees of Deloitte, the private sector consulting company that has already masterminded the establishment of drive-in testing centres, run by Serco.

The slides show current testing as 200,000 to 800,000 per day, with a rise to 2m to 4m a day in December.

The “future vision” is 10m tests a day in early 2021.

Moonshot is Johnson’s big hope, it makes clear.

“This is described by the prime minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford. He would also like this to support the opening up of the economy and allow the population to return to something closer to normality,” says the memo.

“This is a top priority for the prime minister who is embedding No 10 staff within the project and has committed to removing any barriers to implementation. He has asked for a Manhattan Project-type approach to delivering the level of innovation/pace required to make this possible. He has also indicated that he would like this to be a cross UK endeavour. The devolved administrations have now been asked at official level whether we wish to embed staff within the moonshot project teams.”

But to some experts, the mission may be seen as more wishful thinking than a feasible way out of the pandemic.

The prime minister has said publicly he wants to move towards mass testing that is as simple as a pregnancy test and delivers a result in 15 minutes.

That technology does not yet exist, but it is a fundamental part of the moonshot package.

The big hope is firstly in saliva tests, which are quick and more comfortable than swab tests for the virus. This part of the plan is under way already.

Saliva tests have been piloted in Southampton, among healthcare workers and their families. The pilot was said to be successful – but no data has been released. It is understood that there were too few infections in the city to prove the tests worked.

That pilot has been extended in Hampshire – the documents suggests it will launch in Manchester as well. Mass screening is taking place in Salford. The same saliva tests are going to be offered to anyone who wants them. It’s both a trial of the saliva test and of people’s enthusiasm for population screening. Testing will take place at train stations and other places yet to be decided, the document says.

The plans suggest that schools, universities and other institutions would follow, while the technology was also to be used to target outbreaks around the country.

The plans feature the initials TBC for much of the detail here – to be confirmed. Finally, private sector organisations would be empowered to deliver testing in workplaces.

Beyond saliva testing, which has not yet been proved to work although it is promising, moonshot depends on a new generation of rapid antigen tests becoming available.

The DHSC has already contracted to buy some of them off the drawing board. It signed a deal with Oxford Nanopore, a young biotech company spun off from Oxford University, for a rapid test that can be turned around in 90 minutes before it had even gained its CE mark.

On 3 August, Hancock announced it was buying “millions of ground-breaking rapid coronavirus tests” from Oxford Nanopore, which features in the moonshot documents, and DnaNudge. They would be “rolled out to hospitals, care homes and labs across the UK to increase testing capacity ahead of winter”, he said.

“We’re using the most innovative technologies available to tackle coronavirus. Millions of new rapid coronavirus tests will provide on the spot results in under 90 minutes, helping us to break chains of transmission quickly,” said Hancock.

The documents do acknowledge that most of those tests are as yet unavailable. They talk of “developing, validating, procuring, and operationalising testing technology that currently does not exist” and “creating significant new logistical and manufacturing infrastructure and capacity”.


3 thoughts on “What is No 10’s ‘moonshot’ Covid testing plan and is it feasible?

    • Boris does look to be a sucker for the “snake-oil” salesman. There seem to be a lot of them around these days and doing well by all accounts.


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