In Brief

Coronavirus: inside the UK’s government plan to launch city-wide Covid testing

Programme hailed as ‘first glimpse’ of an exit strategy from lockdown

Up to 500,000 people in Liverpool are set to be tested for Covid-19 under a government plan aimed at avoiding future lockdown measures.

The city has one of the highest coronavirus rates in England and volunteered for the scheme after being placed under Tier 3 restrictions on 14 October.

Originally trailed under the name Operation Moonshot, the plan is is being hailed as the “first glimpse of an exit strategy” from the nationwide lockdown that begins this Thursday, says Politico London Playbook’s Alex Wickham.

Testing, testing, testing

The testing scheme begins on Friday and will cover everyone living and working in Liverpool, which recorded Covid case rates of 366.4 per 100,000 people in the week to 29 October. A variety of test types will be administered by NHS staff aided by 2,000 Armed Forces personnel.

“Residents and workers will be tested using a combination of existing swab tests, as well as 500,000 new lateral flow tests, which can rapidly turn around results within an hour without the need to be processed in a lab,” Sky News reports. And everyone in the city will be offered repeat testing, even if asymptomatic. 

To be considered a success, however, the plan “will need not only to find those who are infected regardless of symptoms, but convince them to self-isolate”, says The Guardian. “Only 20% to 25% of people are estimated to quarantine fully when asked to do so by test and trace.”

Given this lack of compliance, the government is also understood to be considering plans to cut the period of self-isolation from 14 days to seven days.

Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson, whose brother Bill died from Covid-19 last month, said: “We are seeing a slow reduction in figures in Liverpool which shows we are on the right path and residents and businesses are working together and following guidelines for the greater good.

“We hope this new initiative boosts our efforts, and we will continue to see the numbers of positive cases drop across the city.”

Slovakia-model

The Liverpool plan is modelled on Slovakia, which has grabbed headlines worldwide by pulling off “a feat that no other country has managed”, says Politico

Over the weekend, more than 3.6 million Slovaks over the age of nine were given swab tests - a total that represents 95% of the targeted population. Of those tested, 38,359 got a positive result, but the remainder are being exempted from a curfew imposed this week, allowing them to go about their normal lives.

Prime Minister Igor Matovic said the nationwide testing programme was a “significant step for all of Slovakia” that means “we don’t have to kill the economy”. 

“This is a smarter solution,” he added. 

Slovakia has fared comparatively well in tackling the pandemic, with latest figures showing that the country had recorded 61,829 Covid-19 infections and just 219 deaths.

Glimmer of hope

The Liverpool testing programme is intended to “very quickly” form a blueprint for mass testing for the rest of the UK, writes Politico’s Wickham. 

Emphasising that goal, a Department of Health official told the new site that the “Liverpool pilot will inform the rest of the rollout, but we want to move quickly to take advantage of this and are considering where to deploy it next”.

The hope is to offer all Britons a test in time for Christmas, a “senior figure involved in the programme” told The Times

Experts say that weekly tests could “halve the reproduction rate”, adds The Telegraph, and allow “the rest of the population to resume activities”.

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