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How will the government's new mass coronavirus testing plan work?

Sky News logo Sky News 23/11/2020 Philip Whiteside, news reporter
a person that is standing in the rain holding an umbrella: A coronavirus mass testing centre set up in Liverpool © Getty A coronavirus mass testing centre set up in Liverpool

Since it was introduced early in the pandemic, thousands of families have been forced to shut themselves off from the world, without knowing if they have COVID.

But the misery of prolonged self-isolation may soon be coming to an end, as the government is introducing a new system of mass testing that will cut the time people have to stay apart from others.

It could mean that people will only have to self-isolate if they test positive.

In his speech to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined some of the details of what this new mass testing will involve.

How will it work?

Previously, the majority of people offered a test by the NHS showed symptoms or had come into contact with a COVID carrier.

Now, the aim is to test large numbers of people to identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus and to make sure those people isolate and do not become superspreaders.

The prime minister said it offered an end to the misery of self isolation for many.

He told the House: "We will… use daily testing to ease (a) restriction that is imposed on many lives, to end automatic isolation.

"Beginning a little later this week, contacts who are tested every day for a week will only need to isolate if they themselves test positive. If successful, this approach will be extended across the health system next month and to the whole of England from January."

Gallery: Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak around the world (Photo Services)

Who will be tested?

The government says it is planning an urgent expansion of the testing of several groups, including: NHS patient-facing staff, care home staff and residents, people visiting relatives at care homes and carers who visit people's homes.

Mr Johnson said: "We are beginning to deploy these tests in the NHS and in care homes in England so people will once again be able to hug and hold hands with loved ones instead of waving at them through a window.

"By the end of the year, this will allow every care home resident to have two visitors who can be tested twice a week. Care workers looking after people in their own homes will be offered weekly tests from today."

Food processing staff, prison staff and inmates, and vaccine distribution workers, meanwhile, will be tested weekly, under the new approach.

The government says it also wants to continue piloting more rapid testing in schools, colleges and universities, including the testing of students to allow them to travel home for Christmas, so they know they won't infect their families. This will start from 30 November.

Is that all?

In addition, any local authority that is in Tier 3 of the government's England-wide COVID restrictions will be offered a community testing programme.

This so-called six-week testing "surge" will enable local authorities, with the help of the armed forces, to test the general population and to target high-risk workplaces and industries, hard to reach communities and schools.

The UK government says it is working with devolved authorities to co-ordinate this across the three other nations of the country.

Has this been done anywhere else?

It is an extension of a pilot scheme that has been tried in Liverpool.

Under the scheme, the armed forces were drafted in to help test as many of the city's half a million residents as possible.

Mr Johnson added: "In the last two and a half weeks, over 200,000 people have taken part in community testing, contributing to a very substantial fall in infections.

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"The system is untried and there are, of course, many unknowns, but if it works, we should be able to offer those who test negative the prospect of fewer restrictions, for example, meeting up in certain places with others who have also tested negative.

"And those towns and regions we can engage in community testing will have a much greater chance of easing the rules that they currently endure."

Why is it being brought in now?

The government has been testing new technologies which identify if someone is positive, which it says means it can now carry out mass testing in a way it has not been able to so far.

Previously, the main way to test if someone was COVID positive was through something called a PCR test, which involved sticking a swab down someone's throat and then sending it to a lab. It often took several days to get a result.

One of the new types of test is called a lateral flow test, which only requires a swab of a nostril and can tell if someone has coronavirus in 15 to 30 minutes.

It is similar to the technology used in home pregnancy testing kits and if someone has COVID antibodies in their system it shows on a strip of paper.

Is the test accurate?

It's not as accurate as PCR tests, which are seen as the gold standard for accuracy.

Innova Tried and Tested, the company which supplied 20 million tests for Liverpool, claims it has an average sensitivity of between 88% and 99%, the NS Medical Devices website reports, suggesting there will be some errors in the results.

Will Test and Trace still operate?

Yes.

The government says that its winter strategy, which includes the mass testing, is backed by an additional £7bn for NHS Test and Trace to support increased testing and ongoing improvements to tracing.

Stay alert to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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