A Government minister has refused to say when the UK will be able to hit 10 million coronavirus tests per day.
It’s another setback for Boris Johnson’s ‘Operation Moonshot’ plan for mass coronavirus testing after experts yesterday cast doubt on whether the proposal was achievable.
The prime minister had said the UK would be able to carry out rapid testing – even on people who did not show symptoms – ‘in the near future’.
The plan relies on the availability of tests that can provide a result in under an hour.
But experts said the technology for more rapid tests ‘does not, as yet, exist’.
Speaking on Sky News, Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi was unable to say when the UK would be able to test 10 million people a day, acknowledging the plan was only an ‘ambition’.
Asked whether it was all ‘pie in the sky’, Mr Zahawi replied: ‘I think it’s important that we are ambitious and I think it’s right that the prime minister wants us to be able to test everyone.
‘That’s the way you keep ahead of the virus until you get a vaccine.’
Pressed further to give a date for the plan, the business minister said: ‘I can’t commit to this. I can commit to the date when we will be at half a million capacity of tests by October.’
The British Medical Journal said leaked memos show Operation Moonshot could cost £100 billion – more than the Government’s entire education budget.
Mr Johnson said the plan to test everyone could allow people to ‘behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else’.
He added: ‘We believe that new types of test which are simple, quick and scalable will become available. They use swabs or saliva and can turn round results in 90 or even 20 minutes.’
The Government will pilot a mass testing programme in Salford from next month using audiences in indoor and outdoor venues.
British Medical Association chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said it was unclear how Operation Moonshot would work given the ‘huge problems’ currently seen in lab capacity.
He added: ‘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.’
The business minister said the UK has to ‘be ambitious about our testing capacity’.
‘It’s right to be ambitious,’ Mr Zahawi said. ‘Then you begin to be ahead of the virus even without a vaccine.’
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