Health experts fear rapid tests may distract from vaccine work

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Ambitious rapid coronavirus testing plans for England threaten to become a distraction from other key goals such as the roll-out of a vaccine, prominent health officials have warned.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised the fast mass community testing systems conducted in Liverpool – which gave results in around 20 minutes without the need for a laboratory – will be replicated in all tier three areas after lockdown ends. This covers areas with a combined population of some 23 million people.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Liverpool – where 300,000 people have been tested in the pilot scheme – had shown how effective the measure can be.

Mr Johnson signalled on Thursday that mass community testing was the way out of Tier 3 restrictions, saying it involved “everybody working together to kick Covid out”.

But the Faculty of Public Health and the Association of Directors of Public Health said in a joint statement this would be a massive undertaking that would stretch the country’s resources in the fight against Covid-19 such that other priorities may be compromised.

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Coronavirus – Fri Nov 20, 2020
Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the Liverpool trial has shown how effective the rapid testing can be (Trevor Adams/Daily Mail/PA)

“Firstly, substantial resources – human and financial – are needed to deliver lateral flow testing at scale,” the two bodies said.

“The additional logistical capacity provided to Liverpool to set up and manage testing sites alone has been enormous, and it is difficult to envisage how or even whether this could be replicated at the pace being proposed across the country.

“This threatens to be a distraction from other activities, like planning and rolling out vaccines.”

The statement added: “There is an enormous price tag attached to this programme, and the resources and capacity needed come at a time of overwhelming and competing priorities, including making sure all those who are symptomatic get tested and self-isolate to planning and rolling out vaccines.”

The two groups said that in terms of current testing measures, making the NHS’s Test and Trace systems more effective must remain the top focus.

“Improving the existing Test and Trace Service so that people who have symptoms are rapidly tested and supported to self-isolate, and their contacts reached, must remain the top focus in relation to testing,” they said.

“A high performing Test and Trace Service needs to move fast, be led by local intelligence, and prioritise those groups and settings where Covid-19 can either spread quickly and/or harm the most vulnerable.”

The statement added: “The key priority needs to be targeted community testing … in settings or locations of higher risk of transmission or where the consequence of infection is higher.”

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