Public will be urged to take Covid test twice a week as lockdown rules ease

·6 min read
Blower cartoon
Blower cartoon
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Everyone in the country will be encouraged to take two Covid tests a week to show they are not infected, Boris Johnson will announce on Monday.

The rapid lateral flow tests will be paid for by the Government and can be delivered to homes free of charge from Friday.

The multi-billion-pound expansion of testing is designed to catch Covid outbreaks early as the economy reopens.

While the tests are voluntary, the announcement could pave the way for workplaces or businesses to ask staff or customers to show they have a negative result.

The Government is also understood to be considering how the mass testing system could form part of an official “Covid certification” scheme, through which the public would be required to prove they have been vaccinated, show an up-to-date negative test result or prove that they have antibodies from recent infection in order to attend events or venues.

People tesing positive for Covid-19 antibodies
People tesing positive for Covid-19 antibodies

The Prime Minister said: “Massive efforts have been made by the British public to stop the spread of the virus.

“As we continue to make good progress on our vaccine programme, and with our roadmap to cautiously easing restrictions underway, regular rapid testing is even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted.

“That’s why we’re now rolling out free rapid tests to everyone across England – helping us to stop outbreaks in their tracks – so we can get back to seeing the people we love, and doing the things we enjoy.”

Mr Johnson will also announce at a Downing Street press conference on Monday – to be held exactly a year to the day since he was taken into hospital with Covid-19 – that the next phase in lifting lockdown restrictions will go ahead from April 12, including reopening pubs and restaurants outdoors and non-essential shops.

The Prime Minister will also unveil plans for allowing foreign summer holidays from May 17, which are expected to outline a traffic light system with the lowest risk countries labelled green and travellers to those nations facing the least restrictions.

Trials of vaccine passports and test certificates to let people visit theatres, cinemas, sports grounds, nightclubs and music festivals this summer without social distancing will also be confirmed. The earliest of those events will rely heavily on testing rather than proof of vaccination.

As many as 384 million lateral flow testing kits have been ordered by the Government at a cost of more than £1.3 billion, with at least a further £900 million's worth of contracts in the pipeline.

The idea of mass testing as a way of tackling the pandemic was first floated last year by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, as Operation Moonshot, which envisaged up to 10 million tests a day. The move will mark a significant ramping up from the current 1.2 million daily tests.

“As we reopen society and resume parts of life we have all dearly missed, regular rapid testing is going to be fundamental in helping us quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks,” said Mr Hancock.

“The vaccine programme has been a shot in the arm for the whole country, but reclaiming our lost freedoms and getting back to normal hinges on us all getting tested regularly.

“The British public have shown over the last year that they quickly adapt and always do what is right in the interest of public health, and I know they will do their bit by getting tested regularly in the months ahead.”

More than 100,000 businesses in England have registered their interest in providing rapid tests to their employees, as companies are expected to use the tests to help bring staff back into work.

It could also mean employees may attempt to force companies to ensure their colleagues are taking the tests if they are sharing office space.

Lateral flow tests Q&A
Lateral flow tests Q&A

Rapid tests are already available to frontline NHS staff; care home workers, residents and visitors; and school pupils and their families, but will now be extended to everyone, irrespective of whether they are vaccinated or not.

The tests will help identify the one in three people who do not show any symptoms. They are credited with catching more than 120,000 positive cases that would not have otherwise been found.

They will be available online or in batches of seven from pharmacies to be administered at home, or could be taken in the workplace, at local authority community testing sites or PCR test sites.

The rollout is being accompanied by a tightening of test and trace rules.

All customers at hospitality venues will be required to check in using the Covid app, allowing the NHS to more easily contact anyone who may have been close to someone infected with the virus. Previously only one person from each group was required to register their attendance.

Anyone testing positive will have to self-isolate for 10 days unless their result is reversed by a PCR test. People alerted by test and trace to a contact with someone with a positive result will also have to quarantine for the same period.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, said: “Rapid testing helps us find Covid-19 cases that we wouldn’t otherwise know about, helping to break chains of transmission.

“These tests are effective in detecting people that are infectious and therefore most likely to transmit infection to others. They are another tool we now have to help maintain lower infection rates.

“I encourage everyone to take up the offer of these free rapid tests – they are quick and easy to carry out in your own home.”

Take-up of the lateral flow tests could increase dramatically if they become required for entry to theatres, cinemas, sports grounds, nightclubs and music festivals as part of any certification scheme.

Mr Johnson will on Monday announce trials in which people will be able to go to events if they have had a vaccination, a negative test within 36 hours or if they had a positive test in the previous six months, giving them some immunity from Covid-19.

“The infrastructure of lateral flow tests would be helpful for that although they would have to be supervised. You could not accept home-tested lateral flow as proof of being negative for Covid. I would also caveat it by saying no final decisions have been taken,” said a government source.

Pubs and restaurants will initially be exempt from vaccine or test passports when they reopen for al fresco service on April 12. But ministers indicated that they had not ruled out the possibility of requiring certification for entry later in the summer, depending on Covid data.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the health minister announced that vaccinated people would soon have certain privileges, including travelling without quarantine, visiting hairdressers and shopping without further testing.