Coronavirus: Army sent to start ‘moonshot’ tests

Soldiers will be deployed to carry out a mass coronavirus testing programme in six northern towns as part of Boris Johnson’s “moonshot” to avoid a second national lockdown.

[Could the political pressure be on to reach headline targets by arbitrary deadlines? And where have all the consultants gone? – Owl]

Steven Swinford, Deputy Politcal Editor 

The saliva-based tests will be offered to people whether they have Covid-19 symptoms or not. They will receive the results in half an hour.

Mr Johnson is understood to want to hit the target of a million coronavirus tests a day by the end of the year. Ministers are believed to be on target to meet a promise to reach capacity of 500,000 tests a day by tomorrow, but that could be doubled within two months.

The government’s determination to move forward with its mass-testing plan could mean more than five million people a week in England being sent a 30-minute saliva test. The kits are designed to detect active infection, where people have virus particles in their system.

One of the first pilots will be in Redcar, where 36,000 people will be offered tests. Jacob Young, the local Conservative MP, said on Facebook that the army “wouldn’t be knocking on people’s doors”.

He said: “This is a voluntary scheme that will better identify who has Covid-19 in our community, help them to self-isolate, and therefore reduce the spread. Mass testing is the quickest way we will see restrictions reduced and so I think it is a good thing for Redcar.”

Several versions of the test appear to have passed government standards, although experts warned yesterday that they were likely to fall short of the sensitivity of the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that have formed the backbone of the test-and-trace system.

“The biggest issue is the sensitivity,” Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said. “For people in the acute phase of infection, who are symptomatic, they seem to be adequate. But there’s a big question mark over whether these tests would actually detect asymptomatic infection. And we all believe that that’s a major source of the spread.”

Testing data suggests that the saliva tests can identify up to 96 per cent of positive results.