Coronavirus mass testing could wreck Christmas for 400,000 families, expert warns
Mass testing is under way in parts of the country (Image: PA)
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Mass screening for Covid-19 should be paused because current tests available are not reliable enough, experts have warned.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has held up the Moonshot programme of testing everyone in towns and cities as a way to return to some form of normality.
However four of the country’s top screening experts warn commonly used tests miss many patients who are infectious but have not yet developed symptoms.
One commonly used test might also miss between 25-50% of positive cases, giving false reassurance to people who test negative, they said.
One expert found that if everyone in the country was tested, 400,000 people would get a false positive and be wrongly advised to self-isolate.
It comes after the Government last week published results of an evaluation of its Innova rapid test among others.
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Outgoing aide to the PM, Dominic Cummings, was said to be behind the Moonshot strategy of testing people without symptoms.
Prof Allyson Pollock, public health expert at Newcastle University, said: “It’s really important to understand that none of these tests are tests of infectiousness.
“And that is one of the myths that’s being propagated, that you could have your test in the morning and if you were negative you could go about your business or go to funerals or go to the nursing homes, and you’ll be fine.”
Pollock, along with colleagues from universities in Birmingham, Warwick and Bristol, warned testing the general public will use up those which should be targeted at specific groups such as care home visitors or the close contacts of confirmed cases.
She added: “We’re arguing the Moonshot program really should be paused, until the cost effectiveness, and the value for money on any of these programs is well established.
Screening of the general population is currently being piloted in Liverpool.
Mass testing is taking place in Liverpool
The Government plans to spend the equivalent of 70% of the entire NHS budget on expanding it nationwide.
Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics at Birmingham University, said: “The arguments that we’re hearing, and these have been said by the Prime Minister, that this test can tell the difference between infectious and non-infectious is not substantiated by any data.
“There is no data out there to show this.”
He added that mass testing of the whole country before Christmas would not be a good idea.
He said: “It isn’t a suitable way to make sure we have a safe Christmas and could actually do a lot of harm.
“You’ll get 400,000 people who have wrecked their family’s Christmas by doing it.”
The experts also included Prof Sian Taylor-Phillips, of Warwick University, and Dr Angela Raffle, of Bristol University.
They have been running screening programmes in the UK for up to 35 years but say the Moonshot plan was done after rejecting input from the UK National Screening Committee, the body responsible for advising ministers on screening strategy.
They say mass screening of the asymptomatic population is not endorsed by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) or the World Health Organisation.
They are calling for tests to be focused on the tracing of close contacts of confirmed cases.
They believe contact tracing to be stripped from outsourcing firms such as Serco and testing responsibility given to GPs and local councils to run.
Experts warn the tests may not be enough
The group published a briefing note which stated: “The proposals for society-wide screening will cost more than any other healthcare intervention contemplated and has the potential to cause harm through significant diversion of healthcare resources.”
It came as the Defence Secretary said the pilot of mass coronavirus testing in Liverpool is “going in the right direction” but more people are being encouraged to take part.
The pilot, which began on November 6, allows everyone who lives and works in Liverpool to get a regular coronavirus test even if they do not have symptoms.
About 2,000 soldiers have been deployed to the city for the project, which was intended to run for an initial period of 10 to 14 days.
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Speaking on a visit to the testing site at Exhibition Centre Liverpool on Monday, the 11th day of the pilot, Ben Wallace said: “The rollout’s been good, the soldiers have been welcomed, the public have come from all over the city.
“We’d like more people to come but some of that is a challenge for ourselves about do we move or shift and go to other parts of other communities where we’re not seeing a high uptake, do we do more to publicise it?
“And I think that’s a role for both public health and local authority to do alongside, but it’s going in the right direction.”