The UK could get back to normal by Christmas if the rapid coronavirus testing being trialled by the Government is successful, Matt Hancock said today.
The Health Secretary, who has announced a £500million investment in a mass on-the-spot saliva testing regime, said it was the ‘best shot’ at ending social distancing.
Although treatments for the virus are improving, unless a vaccine is found it still cannot be cured or prevented completely.
So keeping track of the bug and squashing it out of communities is the only way to prevent more people ending up in hospital and dying.
When asked about ending social distancing, Mr Hancock said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: ‘I hope that if this mass testing regime comes off, if the new technologies we’re working so hard on work, or we manage to get a vaccine between now and then – which we can’t rule out – then I hope we can have the happy and loving Christmas that people yearn for.’
However as the Health Secretary promises testing will get Britain out of its current situation, the official testing regime is rationing swabs and making some people travel more than 100 miles to get them.
The tests – of which around 180,000 are done each day – are being used more in areas that are in local lockdowns or at risk of facing extra restrictions.
As a result, people who feel unwell in less badly-affected areas of the country are struggling to access the swabs and some report being told to drive for hours to centres in other cities, counties or even countries.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced the Government is investing £500million in mass rapid testing for the coronavirus
Britons who show Covid symptoms can apply for drive-through tests, but some have revealed they are directed to centres more than 100 miles away (Pictured: A family member administers a self-test to a child at a station in Leicester)
Mr Hancock has defended the current testing system and said: ‘At the moment the system works well. Of course there are operational challenges from time to time but it works well.
‘And we’re finding a higher and higher proportion of people in the country who have coronavirus and getting them tests so they can be looked after.
‘But absolutely we need to roll out more testing – we have done throughout this crisis and today’s another step in solving some of those problems with the existing technology.’
He said a decision on whether travellers would need to quarantine when arriving from Portugal would be made on Friday.
Mr Hancock was unable to say whether someone could travel to Portugal on Friday without needing to quarantine on their return, when pressed.
‘The simpler answer is that we follow the data and we make these announcements in an organised way on a Friday lunchtime,’ he said.
‘We are going to publish a further decision tomorrow having looked at the data and I’m not going to pre-judge that.’
Chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, now says he thinks the winter will bring additional challenges for managing the virus, with any potential mass return to work holding the potential for even more testing demand.
Now the Health Secretary has announced a new £500 million funding package will support trials of a 20-minute Covid-19 test and efforts to explore the benefits of repeatedly testing people for the virus.
Money will go towards launching a new community-wide repeat population testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester.
Twickenham’s testing centre was empty despite callers being told no tests were available
Existing trials in Southampton and Hampshire, using a no-swab saliva test and a rapid 20-minute test, will also be expanded through the new funding.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘Testing is a vital line of defence in combating this pandemic.
‘Over the past six months we have built almost from scratch one of the biggest testing systems in the world.
‘We need to use every new innovation at our disposal to expand the use of testing, and build the mass testing capability that can help suppress the virus and enable more of the things that make life worth living.
‘We are backing innovative new tests that are fast, accurate and easier to use will maximise the impact and scale of testing, helping us to get back to a more normal way of life.’
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said saliva-based testing will be used for the pilot in Salford, which will involve the city council and other local partners.
A select number of residents will be invited for a weekly test, with the pilot performing up to 250 tests a day.
The initial focus will be on high footfall areas of Salford, such as retail areas, public services, transport and faith spaces.
Its aim is to identify positive coronavirus cases early, including for those with no or minor symptoms, so people can self-isolate.
At Greenwich there were very few visitors throughout the whole of Tuesday
Results will inform how regular repeat community testing could be scaled up across the country.
In Southampton, the second phase of a no-swab saliva test pilot is due to begin this week.
It will see a weekly testing model trialled with more than 2,100 pupils and staff across four schools.
The work is led by a partnership of the University of Southampton, Southampton City Council and the NHS.
Meanwhile in Hampshire the pilot of a rapid 20-minute coronavirus test will be expanded ‘to further explore the applications of mobile testing in different settings’, the DHSC said.
Funding will also be used to extend capacity for existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing currently being used in the UK.
Baroness Dido Harding, interim executive chairwoman of the National Institute for Health Protection, the body replacing Public Health England, said: ‘New testing technologies and methods are vital to keep the system evolving and improving, especially as we assess how routine testing could help pick up cases of the virus earlier.
‘We will continue to scale up our testing capacity by expanding our network of testing sites and investing in new technologies to reach even more people through NHS Test and Trace.’
The Department of Health and Social Care insisted its Test and Trace programme was working and claimed it was testing ‘hundreds of thousands of people’ every day.
But it would not say how many had been tested in London, only that ‘To make sure we stay in control of this virus we are targeting our testing capacity at the areas that need it most’.
Heathrow’s testing facility had a few cars come through but did not seem to be used fully
The Government released figures today showing 186,500 tests had been carried out today
The latest numbers showed that a further 1,295 people have now tested positive for the virus
A MailOnline investigation discovered the testing centres in Twickenham, Heathrow and Greenwich were practically empty despite callers being told none were unavailable.
A number of people in the capital needing swabs have now come forward to complain they had been told none could be taken in the city.
One, who landed back in the UK on Saturday, was told she had to call 119 to organise a test after her friend tested positive.
She said: ‘I was told there were no tests in the whole of London and to call back at 8pm.
‘The same thing happened when I called back at 8pm – they told me the closest test I could get was 80 miles away, despite living in the capital city.
‘I ended up calling four times and trying to get an appointment and was told the same thing each time.
‘Three out of the four times I was told they didn’t even have any home testing kits to send me.
‘I ended up hiring a car and just turning up to the Twickenham testing centre to see if I could chance it.
‘It was completely empty and despite being told four times that I couldn’t get a test, I was tested straight away without an appointment or a wait.’