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UPDATE 4-Britain to bring in mass testing to curb spread of COVID-19

Wed, 19th Aug 2020 08:24

* UK aims for general population testing by year-end

* Heathrow ready to test arrivals to shorten quarantines

* Britain still has spare lab capacity for tests
(Adds scientist comment)

By Kate Holton and Alistair Smout

LONDON, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Britain plans to bring in
regular, population-wide testing for COVID-19 so it can suppress
the spread of the virus and ease restrictions that have crippled
its economy without triggering a second wave in one of the
worst-hit countries in the world.

Health minister Matt Hancock said the government was
trialling a range of new, faster tests that can give instant
results and hoped to roll them out towards the end of the year.

"The mass testing, population testing, where we make it the
norm that people get tested regularly, allowing us therefore to
allow some of the freedoms back, is a huge project in government
right now," he told BBC Radio.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has been
criticised by political opponents and health experts for being
too slow to go into lockdown and in rolling out testing to know
how far the virus had spread.

Britain now has the highest death toll in Europe, at more
than 50,000, and the deepest economic contraction of any major
advanced economy.

Hancock said the country's research laboratories at Porton
Down were trialling new saliva tests that do not need to go to a
laboratory, so they can deliver faster results.

"There are new technologies coming on track which we are
buying and testing now," he said. "We'll ramp it up certainly
over the remainder of this year."

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised mass
testing there after its first local COVID-19 case in 102 days.

Widespread testing is seen as one way to reopen the economy,
which suffered a record 20% contraction in the second quarter
and is expected to see unemployment soar when the government
ends its huge job subsidy programme in October.

"Hard times are here," finance minister Rishi Sunak said
last week.

ENCOURAGEMENT

New approaches to testing that do not need to be processed
in labs could also spur a re-evaluation of Britain's policy of
requiring travellers from countries such as Spain and France to
quarantine.

London's Heathrow Airport said on Wednesday that a testing
area was ready to open should Britain approve a rule change and
allow two tests, one on arrival and one some days later, to cut
the quarantine time for travellers from the current two weeks.

"The move to increase mass testing and use new techniques
will support efforts to encourage people to resume aspects of
daily living about which they may well be nervous," said Sian
Griffiths, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the Chinese
University of Hong Kong.

"Receiving this information within a faster time period will
enable further consideration to be given to testing in
situations such as airports."

For the current lab-based tests, Britain's government says
it currently has a daily testing capacity of more than 335,000,
although in August between 150,000 and 190,000 tests have
actually been processed on any given day.

By comparison, Germany's testing lab association said on
Tuesday the country had been using about 750,000 of a weekly
capacity of a million tests and so was using a higher proportion
of its capacity.

Cases in Britain have started to rise again, with more than
1,000 positive results on eight of the last 10 days.

The government said on Wednesday it would expand a testing
study being run by the Office for National Statistics from
28,000 people now to 150,000 by October and ultimately to
400,000 to help establish a better national picture of the
pandemic and spot local outbreaks.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London and Ludwig
Burger in Frankfurt; Editing by Michael Holden and Catherine
Evans)

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