UK coronavirus live: scientists cast doubt on viability of Johnson’s ‘moonshot’ testing plan | Politics

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Good morning. At his press conference last night Boris Johnson told us about his “moonshot” plan to deal with coronavirus, and how he was “hopeful” that that by next spring millions of people would be able to get quick, easy Covid tests and, if negative, go to crowded events, ignoring the need for social distancing.

Overnight we learnt more details of this proposal, which is even more ambitious than Johnson implied. As Robert Booth and Sarah Boseley report, government documents admit it could cost £100bn.

But do scientists think it is realistic? This morning we’ve heard from two of them expressing strong doubts. This is what Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science, told the Today programme this morning.


What [the PM] seems to be describing is a rapid test that’s available for mass screening and that gives results within a few minutes. That does not exist at the moment. And no country is using a test like that; it simply is not there.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious and aim for such a test. But it doesn’t exist at the moment, so it’s a a little bit difficult to see how it is going to fit in with what we’re doing at the moment.

The numbers are a bit dramatic. For example, with rapid tests that are available at the moment, you probably can do no more than about 100 a day. So if he’s aiming for 10m a day, that’s quite a target to aim for.

And Prof David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University, told the Today programme that he had concerns about the plan for a statistical viewpoint. He explained:


Mass screening always seems like a good idea. But the huge danger is false positives. No tests are perfect. It is not a simply yes, no thing. And if you are going to have a test that would allow someone into a theatre, or allow them back to work, you have to be really sure they are not infectious. So you have to set a threshold that is not very sensitive, that would pick up anything that hints at being infectious.

That means that such a test will always generate a very large number of false positives. Now, that doesn’t matter so much perhaps if you are just being stopped going into a theatre. But it’s not just a matter of testing. You’ve got this whole downstream business; that person will be told to isolate, their contacts will be told to isolate and so on. And if you only have 1% false positives among all the people who are not infectious, and you are testing the whole country, that’s 600,000 people unnecessarily labelled as positive …

So statisticians, let alone all the logistical issues, are deeply concerned about this.

When Today’s Justin Webb put it to Spiegelhalter that he saw this more as Mars shot than a moonshot, Spiegelhalter replied: “Your words.”

It is worth pointing out that Prof Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, expressed some scepticism about the plan at last night’s press conference. The government’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Emergencies has also published a paper setting out its reservations. And last week Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director, also sounded sceptical about what mass testing might achieve, describing some of the scenarios being talked about as “like fiction”.

Here is the agenda for the day.

Around 11.30am: Matt Hancock, the health secretary, makes a statement in the Commons about coronavirus.

Morning: Downing Street lobby briefing.

Lunchtime: Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, is due to hold an emergency meeting with Maroš Šefčovič, the European commission who, with Gove, jointly chairs the joint committee in charge of implementing the withdrawal agreement.

12.20pm: Nicola Sturgeon takes first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament.

2.30pm: Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, is due to give evidence to the Commons public administration committee.

Politics Live has been doubling up as the UK coronavirus live blog for some time and, given the way the Covid crisis eclipses everything, for the foreseeable future it will still mostly focus on coronavirus. But we will be covering non-Covid political stories too, and where they seem more important and interesting, they will take precedence.

Here is our global coronavirus live blog.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: UK coronavirus live: scientists cast doubt on viability of Johnson’s ‘moonshot’ testing plan | Politics

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