Quarter of Britons could be tested for coronavirus to shorten lockdown period

One in four Britons could be tested for coronavirus to try to shorten the lockdown.

In a sign that ministers have finally accepted the urgency of mass testing, officials have agreed deals to buy 17.5million kits for use by mid-April. 

They hope to identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune.

Britain is currently conducting only ‘antigen’ testing – a swab that requires laboratory analysis. A drive through test facility is pictured above in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures, London

Britain is currently conducting only ‘antigen’ testing – a swab that requires laboratory analysis. A drive through test facility is pictured above in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures, London

Britain is currently conducting only ‘antigen’ testing – a swab that requires laboratory analysis. A drive through test facility is pictured above in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures, London

The tests would help get NHS staff back to work with screening of frontline workers, such as teachers and police officers, to follow.

The programme could see movement restrictions lifted earlier than the six months suggested by the Government’s scientific advisers yesterday. 

‘The top priority is randomised testing to establish how far the disease has spread,’ a Whitehall source said. 

‘That is critical to understanding what we are dealing with and shaping our response.’

Medical equipment is pictured outside London's Excel centre, which has been turned into NHS Nightingale Hospital. One in four Britons could be tested for coronavirus to try to shorten the lockdown

Medical equipment is pictured outside London's Excel centre, which has been turned into NHS Nightingale Hospital. One in four Britons could be tested for coronavirus to try to shorten the lockdown

Medical equipment is pictured outside London’s Excel centre, which has been turned into NHS Nightingale Hospital. One in four Britons could be tested for coronavirus to try to shorten the lockdown

Officials have identified suppliers that can make the tests and have agreed ‘in principle’ to purchase 17.5million if they pass medical checks. 

Britain is currently conducting only ‘antigen’ testing – a swab that requires laboratory analysis.

However the new ‘antibody’ fingerprick tests take 15 minutes to detect whether someone has had the virus.

Jeremy Hunt, a former health secretary, believes testing is key to the relaxation of social distancing measures.

Writing in today’s Daily Mail, he asks: ‘Is it too far-fetched to aim to be the first country that tests every single member of the population at home? In these extraordinary times, with our great British willpower anything is possible.

In a sign that ministers have finally accepted the urgency of mass testing, officials have agreed deals to buy 17.5million kits for use by mid-April. They hope to identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune. An NHS worker is pictured above being tested for the virus in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in London

In a sign that ministers have finally accepted the urgency of mass testing, officials have agreed deals to buy 17.5million kits for use by mid-April. They hope to identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune. An NHS worker is pictured above being tested for the virus in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in London

In a sign that ministers have finally accepted the urgency of mass testing, officials have agreed deals to buy 17.5million kits for use by mid-April. They hope to identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune. An NHS worker is pictured above being tested for the virus in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in London 

‘Mass social distancing will help flatten the curve, but only testing will save us from months, maybe years, of anguish and economic paralysis.’

As the UK’s death toll rose by another 209 to reach 1,288:

  • Consultant Amged El-Hawrani became the first front-line NHS worker to die from the virus;
  • Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries said it was likely to be three to six months before the lockdown was lifted;
  • Boris Johnson continued to chair meetings from isolation in Downing Street;
  • Rail journeys were down by 85 per cent and bus trips fell by three quarters;
  • Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab prepared to unveil a deal with commercial airlines to repatriate tens of thousands of stranded British citizens;
  • Rules were relaxed for two years to allow women to self-administer abortion pills at home rather than visiting a clinic;
  • Michael Gove took a swipe at China, saying its failure to be open about the virus had hindered the world’s response;
  • The number volunteering to help the NHS rose beyond the target 750,000;
  • Labour MP Stephen Kinnock was criticised by police for making a birthday visit to see his 78-year-old father Neil.

Iceland has already carried out a population-wide testing programme and Norway announced one yesterday.

Scientists fear that lifting restrictions too early – before the virus is in retreat –could lead to a second spike in deaths.

Paul Hunter, a professor of epidemiology at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘If you relax social distancing based on a levelling off of cases you could see a resurgence. So we have to be cautious about that because we just don’t know enough about what is going on.

‘But if we know, through mass antibody testing, that a large proportion of the population is immune, you could lift social distancing much earlier.’

Ministers decided earlier this month to reserve all Britain’s testing capacity for those in hospitals. 

But that move has left officials ‘blindfolded’ in their response to the crisis, the World Health Organisation has warned. It has called on all countries to ‘test, test, test’.

The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day.

Even front-line NHS staff were not being tested until this weekend, which meant 20 per cent were in self-isolation last week.

South Korea – initially one of the worst hit countries – managed to quickly control its outbreak by aggressively testing for the disease.

Germany yesterday announced plans for a testing programme that will see it issue 100,000 ‘immunity passports’ a month.

Professor Eleanor Riley, an infectious disease expert at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Mass antibody testing will give us a much better idea of how widely the virus has spread in the population.’

The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day

The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day

The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day

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