Boris Johnson believes a mass testing programme is “our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine”, according to leaked official documents setting out plans for “Operation Moonshot”.
The prime minister is said to be pinning his hopes on a project that would deliver up to 10m tests a day – even though the current testing regime is struggling to deliver a fraction of that number and is beset by problems.
The documents say the “Mass Population Testing Plan” could cost £100bn – the equivalent to the UK’s entire education budget.
If delivered, the moonshot programme would be unprecedented in scale and, as reflected by its name, is considered by some officials to be at the outer level of possibility.
Some of the technology it would require does not yet exist.
Details of the moonshot proposals emerged as Johnson on Wednesday urged people to abide by new restrictions that outlaw gatherings of more than six people indoors and out, and said they were imperative if the country was to avoid further toughening of the rules.
In a gloomy assessment of the deteriorating position, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, said the recent rise in positive cases was a matter of huge concern.
He also admitted the period “between now and spring is going to be difficult” and said the public should expect the new measures to be in place for a number of months – raising fears they may not be lifted before the new year.
With the testing system already under huge strain and critics accusing the government of incompetence, the prime minister used his press conference to set out the bare bones of the moonshot plan, which, he claimed, would allow people to lead more normal lives.
“There are a number of challenges,” he said. “We need the technology to work. We need to source the necessary materials to manufacture so many tests. We need to put in place an efficient distribution network. And we need to work through the numerous logistical challenges.”
But he added: “It should be possible to deploy these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved – literally millions of tests processed every single day.”
He said the moonshot programme could enable theatres and sports venues to test audience members on the day and allow in all those testing negative, as well as allowing workplaces to operate more normally.
However, the practicalities of delivering such an ambitious project in such a short time are evident in two leaked documents – a slide show presentation dated August, and a confidential “UK mass testing narrative” which were initially leaked on Wednesday to the British Medical Journal.
The documents, seen by the Guardian, describe the moonshot project as “a top priority for the prime minister, who is embedding No 10 staff within the project and has committed to removing any barriers to implementation.”
One of the documents reports that he has asked for “a Manhattan Project-type approach to delivering the level of innovation/pace required to make this possible”.
“The prime minister has tasked the secretary of state for health and social care with delivering a Mass Population Testing Programme, currently called Operation Moonshot, before the end of the year.
“This is described by the prime minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford. He would also like this to support the opening up of the economy and allow the population to return to something closer to normality.”
Responding to news of the plan, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said it is unclear how Operation Moonshot would work given the “huge problems” currently seen with lab capacity.
“And the notion of opening up society based on negative tests of those without symptoms needs to be approached with caution – both because of the high rate of ‘false negatives’ and the potential to miss those who are incubating the virus,” he said.
The leaks confirm private sector organisations are to be encouraged to carry out testing to help their own trade and protect their workforce.
“Businesses could support our testing strategy by providing ‘testing at the door’ to enable large scale ‘high-risk’ events to take place, such as football matches, theatre productions, concerts or conferences,” the strategy says. “The costs of travel or leisure activities could include the costs of accessing tests beforehand.”
Saliva swab testing has been trialled in Southampton and will be piloted in Salford next month. The documents say the programme could be extended to Basingstoke, before going UK-wide with schools and universities being mass tested.
A list of companies to engage includes G4S, Serco, Boots, Sainsbury’s, AstraZeneca, GSK and Smith and Nephew. It promises “a huge new operational infrastructure” with testing available in pharmacies, schools and workplaces as well as health settings.
The Treasury is said to be modelling the impact of mass testing on the economy while the Sage scientific advisory panel is modelling its impact on R, the measure of virus spread, the documents report.
But the document cautions: “Critically, for this testing to reduce infection rates, it must lead to behaviour change – citizens will need to participate regularly, and if they test positive they will need to isolate rapidly and reliably.”
The Department of Health and Social Care said it did not comment on leaked documents, but a spokesperson confirmed the ambition to scale up testing. “This country now has the capacity to test for coronavirus on an unprecedented scale and we are going further by investing £500m in next-generation tests, like saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes,” he said.
“We are increasing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October, and the ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results, will significantly increase our ability to fight coronavirus, stop the spread and for our economy to recover.”
The project would ramp up testing to between 2m and 4m daily tests by December. That would allow mass testing of all homes in areas or whole cities with rising cases of Covid-19, internal documents show. By the end of the year there would also be weekly testing of all teachers and tests for all visitors to hospitals and care homes.