Matt Hancock has insisted the government is aiming to achieve the “moonshot” of population-wide testing for coronavirus – but declined to give any timescale on when it could be implemented.
The health secretary said mass testing, where it would become the “norm” for the public to get tested regularly for Covid-19, would allow the government to roll back some curbs to social freedoms.
Former prime minister Tony Blair has previously warned mass testing of the bulk of the population – including asymptomatic people – must be adopted to monitor transmission rates of the disease and prevent the need for the severity of a “blunt instrument of lockdown”.
Mr Hancock also announced the coronavirus infection survey by the Office for National Statistics, will increase from regularly testing 28,000 people per fortnight in England to 150,000 across the UK from October.
The survey, which is separate from mass testing and provides a snapshot of infections in the UK, ultimately aims to increase to include 400,000 individuals, the Department of Health and Social Care added.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Hancock provided scant details of the plan, but added the top-secret laboratory Porton Down was currently evaluating “new technologies” that would enable people to self-administer tests at home and get rapid results.
“This is a really, really important drive that we hope across government to bring in mass testing, population-wide testing,” the cabinet minister told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“The new technologies for testing that are coming on stream now are incredibly important. At the moment you have to send off a test to a laboratory and get it back, and all the logistics of that takes time; it’s also quite expensive.
Mr Hancock added: “We’re testing some of these right now in Porton Down, in our scientific labs, and 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 with enormous support”
But when pressed on a timescale for mass testing in the UK, the health secretary declined to do so, saying: “We’ll ramp it up certainly over the remainder of this year. We’ll start immediately.
“These new technologies – you only have to use saliva rather having a swab all the way down the back of your throat, which means anyone can administer it, or self-administer it. Some of them they don’t need a lab on the test which means you don’t have to send it off and get it back. With the best ones you get the results in 10 minutes.”