Christmas lockdown CAN be avoided if Govt gets mass-testing right, says Oxford prof

A CHRISTMAS lockdown can be avoided if the Government gets mass-testing right, an Oxford University professor has said.

Sir John Bell – who last week claimed Britain would be back to normal by spring – claims rapid turnaround tests could keep Covid under control.

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He suggested that scaling up on the £5 pregnancy-style tests, which produce results in minutes, could allow Brits to spend the festive period together.

The Government scientist, who is also part of the Oxford vaccine team, added there will be news from the trial "pretty soon" – boosting hopes of another jab before Christmas.

It comes as trials revealed rapid turnaround tests picked up more than three in four positive cases – most of which are currently being missed.

Sir Bell said a landmark programme in Slovakia, where officials are testing almost the entire population, has seen infection rates drop dramatically.

Sir Bell, who is also member of the Government's vaccine taskforce, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think we've got to be careful at the end of this lockdown that we don't end up just taking our foot completely off the brake and ending up with another big problem in mid December.

"But we do have a whole set of tools that we didn't have before the last lockdown.

"If you look at the Slovakian data as to what they've achieved by doing mass testing, boy, have they knocked the transmission of this disease on the head.

"There are real opportunities to use rapid turnaround lateral flow tests at scale to help manage the disease and keep this thing under control.

"I know there's big efforts to make that happen.

"I'm optimistic we won't have to go into the Christmas period in a lockdown. That would be a real problem in my view."

There are real opportunities to use rapid turnaround lateral flow tests at scale to help manage the disease and keep this thing under control

A pilot of mass testing in Liverpool found 700 positive cases which would have not been detected otherwise, it was revealed yesterday.

Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing, Public Health England director Dr Susan Hopkins said the lateral flow devices, had been used to test thousands of people in the city since the scheme began on November 6.

She said: "Over the last 10 days, with military support, we have tested almost 100,000 people in the Liverpool testing sites with the lateral flow devices and found more than 700 people who would otherwise have not been detected.

"As you have heard, we are looking to replicate this across the country and working with directors of public health who can target the test for their own population – understanding the populations who are most at need of testing.

"We are also running evaluations in schools and universities and are planning to test university students prior to going home at Christmas."

'FAIL MISERABLY'

Yet experts have warned that mass testing – dubbed Operation Moonshot by the Government – could "fail miserably" and lead to thousands of false results.

Scientists at universities in Birmingham, Warwick, Bristol and Newcastle said there would be 400,000 false positives if 60 million Britons were screened before Christmas.

The plans, which could cost an estimated £100 billion, have been developed without scrutiny from the National Screening Committee, they revealed.

They also warned that students who are tested for Covid before being allowed to return home for Christmas must have clear information that a negative test result "reduces the risk" they are taking Covid-19 back home to their families, but it will not rule it out.

 

And mass testing of the whole population before Christmas could see 400,000 unnecessarily self-isolating during the holiday period, they added.

Academics urged the Prime Minister to use the so-called Downing Street reset to review the programme in a "sensible and rational way".

The Government will decide next week how to end the current lockdown as scientists warned a tougher tier system is needed until vaccines can drive back the Covid-19 pandemic.

Data released on Monday from US firm Moderna showed its jab to be almost 95 per cent effective in protecting against Covid-19, following news that a jab from Pfizer/BioNTech is over 90 per cent effective.

JAB BOOST

Sir Bell said he was hopeful large numbers of people could be vaccinated by the spring.

He told Radio 4': "We can get vaccines into people in the UK and in most western countries pretty effectively.

"So I think the idea that we're going to vaccinate a very large percentage of the population by spring is completely possible.

"And I think that will make a big difference because people will be then less anxious about catching the disease because they will be vaccinated, transmissions will fall to a low level and we may not be back completely to normal but things are going to look dramatically different by the spring."

On safety, he said "most of the side-effects that have occurred from vaccines are pretty apparent within the first two to three months," adding that he would be surprised if Covid vaccines "don't substantially reduce transmissions".

What is Operation Moonshot?

OPERATION Moonshot is the name of the Government's newly proposed Covid-19 mass testing scheme.

Moonshot testing promises to deliver coronavirus test results in just 15 minutes.

It would take the form of mass at-home testing and could see up to 10 million tests carried out every day from the comfort of people's own homes.

The test would not need to be processed in a lab to be developed, so that users get their results in a matter of minutes rather than days.

Similar to a pregnancy test, the saliva test would eliminate the need for people to travel – sometimes long distances – to testing centres before returning home to wait for the result.

The aim of the tests is to start fully reopening society and getting the economy up and running even before a Covid vaccine has been developed.

Under the plan, Brits would swab themselves in the morning and be given a 24-hour pass to mingle without having to stick to social distancing rules.

A person could prove they had tested negative by either electronically presenting their result, or showing a printed card.

The tests are reportedly due to be trialled in the Covid hotspot of Salford from this month.

However it comes with a steep price tag almost as much as NHS England's £114billion budget in 2018/19.

The Moonshot proposals come as the current testing programme faces considerable criticism for struggling to meet demand.

He said the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine study, which is due to report soon, should give "some sense" of the effect on transmission.

He added: "I'll be very surprised that these vaccines don't substantially reduce transmissions.

"They may not completely eliminate the ability to grow virus in your nose, so there may be still a risk of transmissions out there, at a low level, but obviously that's something that we have to explore."

Sir Bell, 68, hit headlines last week when he said Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine means that "life will return to normal by spring".

The immunologist made the comments after the US firm published interim findings which found their jab to be 90 per cent effective.

He told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "I am really delighted with this result – it shows that you can make a vaccine against this little critter.

"Ninety percent is an amazing level of efficacy.

"It rolls the pitch for other vaccines because I can't see any reason now why we shouldn't have a handful of good vaccines."

When asked, 'Will life return to normal by spring?', Prof Bell added: "Yes, yes, yes. I am probably the first guy to say that but I will say that with some confidence."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK is ready to roll out the vaccine when it gets the green light from regulators.

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