Boris confirms shops CAN reopen on Monday – but is lockdown roadmap in doubt?

What did Boris Johnson announce at yesterday’s press conference?

The next step of easing lockdown will go ahead as planned: The PM confirmed that non-essential shops, gyms, hairdressers and libraries in England will reopen from April 12 while pubs and restaurants will be allowed to serve customers outdoors. Overnight stays away from home in England will be permitted. The majority of outdoor settings and attractions like zoos and theme parks can also reopen. 

Foreign travel: A traffic light system will be rolled out when international travel is allowed again but the PM refused to commit to his target roadmap date of May 17 for resuming flights. The new system will see countries rated green, amber or red based on data including vaccination levels and Covid-19 case numbers. Return travel from countries on the green list will be quarantine-free although people will still need to take tests before their trip and when they return. Ministers said it is ‘too early to say’ which countries will be green. 

Vaccine passports: The PM unveiled the initial findings of a Whitehall review into the use of ‘Covid status certification’. The documents will combine vaccination, testing and immunity data and will be used to determine access to large-scale events. The Government has left the door open to the documents being used for access to pubs and restaurants. 

Working from home and social distancing: Initial findings from a Government review suggest both WFH and social distancing could continue past ‘freedom day’ on June 21 – the last date in the roadmap. The review said it is looking at ‘how and when to safely lift or amend the 1m+ rule’ as well as other restrictions like working from home. It stressed that the conclusion will ‘depend on the latest data and evidence on the state of the pandemic’ while ‘the extent of any relaxation in social distancing measures’ will be linked to the success of vaccine passports. The findings do not contain a specific target date by which the rules will be lifted. 

Return to spectator events: Ministers will run a series of pilot programmes in different venues to test the best ways to bring back crowds to live events. The pilots will be closely linked to the vaccine passports initiative, although the initial events will focus entirely on using testing data to grant access. Participating venues will include the World Snooker Championship at the Crucible in Sheffield and the Circus nightclub in Liverpool. Ministers are also hoping to admit a crowd of up to 20,000 people to Wembley for the FA Cup final on May 15, with a second wave of pilots taking place from the end of May. 

Back to normal: A new paper published by the Government’s SAGE committee said life will not go back to normal this summer even if the PM’s roadmap goes completely to plan. SAGE sources warned that while vaccines prevent the vast majority of people from falling ill and dying from coronavirus, they ‘are not good enough’ to see all curbs lifted ‘without a big epidemic’. The experts claimed that ‘baseline measures’, including some form of social distancing and masks, would need to remain in place until this time next year. They said they are ‘reasonably confident’ that Covid will be manageable by then.  

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Critics have blasted Boris Johnson’s grim vision of coronavirus restrictions stretching into the future as a ‘hellish demi-lockdown’. 

The Prime Minister tried to strike a bullish tone saying the country’s hard work is ‘paying off’ as he held an Easter Monday press briefing in Downing Street, confirming that shops can open on April 12 as planned.

Non-essential retail, gyms and hairdressers can get up and running, while bars, restaurants and cafes will be able to serve customers.

But Sir Iain Duncan-Smith warned Britain was on course to be left in a ‘demi-lockdown’ even when the road map is completed. 

The former Tory leader accused government scientists of deploying ‘Project Fear’ tactics to keep restrictions in place for longer than necessary.

Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper – who now chairs the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs – also warned the scheme would create a ‘two-tier Britain’ and said it was vital that MPs had the final say. 

Sir Iain told the Mail: ‘We were told the vaccine was the way out, no ifs, no buts. We can see from the data that the vaccine is working better than anyone had hoped, but now the scientists are saying the real issue is variants or a third wave.

‘They want to keep Project Fear going because they are enjoying the control they have, and ministers have caved in to them.

‘The result is we are headed for a hellish demi-lockdown, where we have to be tested all the time, carry a vaccine passport everywhere and are under the constant threat of being locked down again.’ 

Addressing the nation on Monday night, Mr Johnson said: ‘On Monday 12th, I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips.’ 

As he struggled to quell rising anxiety about when normal life might resume, he said: ‘We set out our roadmap and we are sticking with it… We see nothing the present data that makes us think we will have to deviate from that roadmap.’  

However, the government’s SAGE experts and a series of reviews published yesterday cast serious doubt on the prospects of returning to normal by the June 21 date previously proposed for a full lifting – and Mr Johnson himself seemed to scale back his rhetoric on ‘freedom day’.    

New evidence released by the government suggested that the relaxation could spark a fourth peak in outbreak. 

A paper indicated that ‘baseline measures’, including some form of social distancing and masks, would need to remain in place until this time next year – while voicing ‘reasonable confidence’ that Covid will be manageable by then.

It said the reopening of pubs, cinemas and indoor hospitality – due to happen on May 17 – could be called into question if vaccine uptake in the under-50s dips below 85 per cent. 

Meanwhile, separate updates on a series of reviews gave little more than holding positions – stopping short of confirming that non-essential foreign travel will be allowed from the earliest mooted date of May 17, with a traffic light system of restrictions due to come into force when the blanket ban lifts.

Mr Johnson said he would not provide a ‘hostage to fortune’ by giving any timeline.  

Easing of social distancing rules and tough work from home guidance could also be contingent on controversial plans for Covid passports.

A further update suggested businesses will be permitted to use Covid passports, but they would not be in place before June 21 – and the premier even dodged committing to hold a vote in Parliament on the issue.

He set himself up for a potentially-volcanic clash with his own backbenchers by saying: ‘First we need to work out what exactly the proposal might be, but certainly if there is something to put to Parliament I am certain we will do that.’

Should the plans be put to a vote in the Commons, a hard core of Conservative backbenches would oppose them on civil liberties grounds, and Labour has hinted it could follow suit. 

It comes as:

  • Government scientists warned that Britain is ‘highly likely’ to suffer a third wave of Covid infections and deaths once all restrictions are lifted in the summer;
  • Academic warns regular Covid testing will result in a ‘public health disaster’ with thousands forced needlessly to self-isolate; 
  • Travel chiefs reacted with fury as ministers warned Britons not to book foreign holidays and refused to rule out extending the international travel ban into summer; 
  • Ministers raised the prospect of some social distancing and working from home rules remaining in place after officially ends in June;
  • Britain’s vaccine regulator could stop younger people from having AstraZeneca‘s jab as soon as today over concerns about rare cases of blood clots. 
Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

Chris Whitty

Chris Whitty

Boris Johnson (left) tried to strike a bullish tone saying the country’s hard work is ‘paying off’ as he held an Easter Monday press briefing alongside chief medic Chris Whitty (right) in Downing Street, confirming that shops can open on April 12 as planned

Millions could go to pubs with no social distancing under plans to let drinkers use mobile phones to prove they are free of Covid. This graphic shows how the app would have worked

Millions could go to pubs with no social distancing under plans to let drinkers use mobile phones to prove they are free of Covid. This graphic shows how the app would have worked

Millions could go to pubs with no social distancing under plans to let drinkers use mobile phones to prove they are free of Covid. This graphic shows how the app would have worked 

Entry to festivals and major sporting events will only be allowed to those with either an NHS app or certificate showing they have had a covid jab, the Prime Minister is expected to announce on Monday (file image)

Entry to festivals and major sporting events will only be allowed to those with either an NHS app or certificate showing they have had a covid jab, the Prime Minister is expected to announce on Monday (file image)

Entry to festivals and major sporting events will only be allowed to those with either an NHS app or certificate showing they have had a covid jab, the Prime Minister is expected to announce on Monday (file image)

An NHS staff member administers the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to a woman at the Turkish Cypriot Community Association in Haringey, north London

An NHS staff member administers the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to a woman at the Turkish Cypriot Community Association in Haringey, north London

An NHS staff member administers the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to a woman at the Turkish Cypriot Community Association in Haringey, north London

Earlier, Matt Hancock faced a backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way 'back to normality' (file image)

Earlier, Matt Hancock faced a backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way 'back to normality' (file image)

Earlier, Matt Hancock faced a backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way ‘back to normality’ (file image)

Former Tory chief whip Mark Harper – who now chairs the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs – warned the scheme would create a ‘two-tier Britain’ and said it was vital that MPs had the final say.

Sir Iain Duncan-Smith (pictured) warned Britain was on course to be left in a ‘demi-lockdown’ even when the road map is completed

He added: ‘Trying to introduce these domestic vaccine passports by the back door by linking them to removing social distancing rules just won’t be acceptable.

‘It is crucial MPs are allowed a vote on this. 

‘Whether the state legislates for it, recommends it or simply allows it, Covid Status Certification will lead to a two-tier Britain and these issues need debating thoroughly and carefully before we allow them to affect the lives of our constituents.’ 

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, earlier branded the proposal ‘intrusive, costly and unnecessary’.   

Labour also hardened its position against the idea, but stopped short of committing to vote it down.

The party’s Cabinet Office spokesman Rachel Reeves said Labour had ‘many reservations’ about the initiative, adding: ‘We have an amazing take-up of the vaccine, it is being rolled out incredibly successfully by the NHS – it is not totally clear to me that we need a sledgehammer to crack a nut here.’

Shadow health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘They are effectively trying to force people into taking a vaccine and I think in the end that will be counterproductive.’ 

The Prime Minister acknowledged there were ‘complicated ethical and practical issues’ involved in any Covid certification scheme, not least because some people cannot have the vaccine.

He said any system would also allow people to show they had recently tested negative for Covid or that they’d had the virus in the previous six months and were therefore likely to have immunity.

Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said that while vaccine passports might have a role in making people feel ‘a bit safer’ they would need ‘enormous scrutiny’.

He added: ‘I think the detail is an absolute nightmare.’ 

Pressed on when he thought life might get back to normal, Mr Johnson merely said ‘in many ways life will begin to get back to at least some semblance of normality’. 

Earlier, Matt Hancock faced a backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way ‘back to normality’. Even the PM will be subject to the screening, despite previously recovering from the disease and having had a vaccine dose.   

The Health Secretary announced a huge expansion of testing with free rapid kits made available to everyone in England from this Friday, saying: ‘Reclaiming our lost freedoms & getting back to normal hinges on us all getting tested regularly.’  

But concerns were immediately raised as when used on that scale the tests could wrongly label tens of thousands of people a week as having Covid – muddying the water over whether the disease is making a comeback.

Those individuals would also be forced to isolate and get more reliable PCR checks to show they are clear. 

Tories pointed out that vaccines have been billed as the key to returning to normal, saying it was another example of ministers ‘moving the goalposts’. 

Mr Johnson said this evening that submitting to tests in return for more normality did not seem ‘too onerous’. 

Flanking Mr Johnson at the briefing, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said he expected testing, regular hand washing and the staying home from work when feeling ill to become ‘baselines’ of social distancing in the future.

‘On social distancing, I think one has to understand what that might mean longer term,’ he told a Downing Street press conference.

‘And it probably means things like hand hygiene and the fact people will take time off if they get ill and stay at home rather than going into work, testing to know if you’ve got it or not.

‘Those sorts of things are likely to be important baseline measures going forward.’

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, asked about when hugging and other interactions could resume, said current coronavirus rates were still too high.

‘The number of people who actually have the virus at the moment is about one in 370 so we really want to get those rates down further before we start to feel that society as a whole has a low level of Covid,’ he said.

Mr Johnson’s gloomy message capped another depressing day as the UK fights to escape the grip of the pandemic – more than a year after the first lockdown, and despite more than 30million people having received vaccine doses. 

Social distancing ‘to stay even if lockdown easing goes to plan’ 

Social distancing will remain in place until next year even if Mr Johnson‘s roadmap out of lockdown goes to plan, the Government’s top scientific advisers warned yesterday.

Senior SAGE sources said that while the vaccines prevent the vast majority of people from falling ill and dying from coronavirus, they ‘are not good enough’ to see all curbs lifted ‘without a big epidemic’.  

All legal limits on social contact were to be abolished by June 21 as part of the final stage of the Prime Minister’s four-step route out of the crisis. It was hoped that festivals, sports events and nightclubs would reopen and that families and friends could reunite in large numbers after that date for the first time since winter 2020.

However, No10’s experts claimed yesterday that ‘baseline measures’, including some form of social distancing and masks, would need to remain in place until this time next year. They said they are ‘reasonably confident’ that Covid will be manageable by then. 

The AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines reduce Covid deaths by about 90 per cent, but there are fears high infection rates could see the virus spill into the small number of vulnerable people who haven’t been jabbed or for whom the vaccines don’t work.  

Despite the pessimistic comments, Mr Johnson is set to announce the country is on track for the second stage of his lockdown easing plans on April 12, which will see shops, gyms, hairdressers and beer gardens reopen again. 

Cases and deaths are their lowest levels in six months and more than half of the adult population has been vaccinated with at least one dose of the jabs. 

Papers released by SAGE yesterday show the expert group is confident next week’s lockdown-easing measures will not pile pressure on the NHS, even if there is a slight uptick in infections, because of the success of the jab rollout.

But the advisory panel is less optimistic about future stages of the roadmap, adding that it is ‘highly likely that there will be a further resurgence in hospitalisations and deaths’.

They said the reopening of pubs, cinemas and indoor hospitality – due to happen on May 17 – could be delayed if vaccine uptake in the under-50s dips below 85 per cent.

Modelling by Warwick University, Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine (LSHTM) warned of a late summer surge after ‘freedom day’ in June which could rival levels seen this January when hospitals were nearly overwhelmed.

Covid passports ‘likely to become feature of life’ 

Covid passports are ‘likely to become a feature of our lives’ until the pandemic passes, a review of future safety measures admitted yesterday, as MPs stepped up their efforts to stop them becoming law.

A Government analysis said that even if the Government did not set up and regulate a system of ‘Covid-status certification’, venues would be able to do it themselves under existing legislation.

And as Mr Johnson unveiled the latest steps on his roadmap out of lockdown this evening it revealed that they could still be required by drinkers to enter the pub or by families heading out for a meal.

But a decision on this has been kicked further down the road to allow more ‘consultation with industry, as part of the review of social distancing rules and taking into account the equalities and other impacts’.

Mr Johnson told the briefing that the Government was ‘some way off finalising any plans’.

‘The principle of requiring some people to have a certificate to prove they are not passing on the disease, like surgeons who have to prove they are vaccinated against hep B or whatever, that can be a sensible one,’ he told a press conference.

‘I want to stress there are complicated ethical and practical issues as I think I said last time raised by the idea of Covid status certification using vaccination alone.

‘Many people will be for one reason or another unable to get a vaccine, for medical reasons for instance, or perhaps because they’re pregnant.

‘So you have to be very careful how you handle this and don’t start a system that is discriminatory.

‘But obviously we are looking at it – we want to be going ahead in the next few weeks with some test events, some pilot events. Big events, getting 20,000 people into Wembley on May 15, that kind of thing.

‘Getting people back into theatre, that will unquestionably involve testing to allow the audience really to participate in the numbers that people want.’

Mr Johnson wants domestic Covid passports in place by June 21 – but faces the potential of an embarrassing Commons defeat after promising Tory rebels a vote on their introduction. Labour has also been lukewarm about them, suggesting it could also vote against them.

The roadmap review published yesterday to coincide with the Prime Minister’s press conference, says: ‘Even without Government intervention, COVID-status certification is likely to become a feature of our lives until the threat from the pandemic recedes… 

‘In the UK, businesses and other organisations are able to ask customers for proof of Covid-status in order to access their premises, as long as they are compliant with equalities legislation.

‘The Government believes that introducing a ban on this would in most cases be an unjustified intrusion on how businesses choose to make their premises safe – although … there may be exceptions where the Government needs to intervene to ensure equitable access to essential services.

Anger as PM refuses to commit to foreign travel resuming from May 17 

Mr Johnson refused to commit to his roadmap date of May 17 for resuming non-essential international travel as the Government again told Britons to wait to book a summer holiday abroad. 

The Prime Minister’s lockdown exit strategy said foreign holidays would return ‘no earlier than’ the middle of May. 

But the initial findings of a Whitehall review on the subject said the ‘state of the pandemic abroad, and the progress of vaccination programmes in other countries’ means ministers are ‘not yet in a position to confirm that non-essential international travel can resume from that point’.

The findings said the Government ‘will confirm in advance whether non-essential international travel can resume on 17 May, or whether we will need to wait longer before lifting the outbound travel restriction’.

‘For the moment, the Government advises people not to book summer holidays abroad until the picture is clearer,’ the update said. 

The findings angered the travel industry amid growing calls for ministers to provide certainty on when non-essential flights can resume. 

Mr Johnson said he was hopeful international travel could resume next month but he did not want to make ‘hostages of fortune’.

‘Obviously we are hopeful that we can get going from May 17, we are hopeful,’ he said.

‘But I do not wish to give hostages to fortune or to underestimate the difficulty we are seeing in some of the destination countries people might want to go to.

‘We don’t want to see the virus being reimported into this country from abroad.

‘What we are going to do, the global travel taskforce is going to report back later this week, we will then being setting out well before May 17 what is reasonable.’

Mr Johnson used a Downing Street press conference yesterday to confirm a traffic light system will be rolled out when international travel is permitted again, with Brits allowed to visit countries with high vaccination rates.  

The system will see destinations rated as red, amber and green using criteria including the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated, the rate of infection, any emerging variants and the country’s access to reliable data and genomic sequencing.

The criteria could result in European countries like France and Italy being ruled out of bounds for British holidaymakers as parts of the EU suffer spikes in cases and the bloc’s vaccination drive continues to stall.          

The Government said it is ‘too early to say’ which countries will be on the green list, with those decisions ‘driven by the data and evidence nearer the time’.  

Travel chiefs fear the traffic light system could result in a holiday booking ‘fiasco’ as they warned some European nations now face a race against time to reduce infection rates and boost vaccine take-up so they can make it onto the green list before the summer season.     

Under the Government’s scheme, sunseekers returning from countries in the green category will not have to isolate, although they will need to have tests before and after they fly. 

Slides presented at the press briefing provided an update on the status of the outbreak in the UK

Slides presented at the press briefing provided an update on the status of the outbreak in the UK

Slides presented at the press briefing provided an update on the status of the outbreak in the UK 

The government unveiled a multi-billion-pound scheme inviting everyone in England to take two free Covid tests per week. The fast-turnaround tests, which produce results in just half an hour, do not require lab analysis and will be available for use at home

The government unveiled a multi-billion-pound scheme inviting everyone in England to take two free Covid tests per week. The fast-turnaround tests, which produce results in just half an hour, do not require lab analysis and will be available for use at home

The government unveiled a multi-billion-pound scheme inviting everyone in England to take two free Covid tests per week. The fast-turnaround tests, which produce results in just half an hour, do not require lab analysis and will be available for use at home

In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Edward Argar said the mass testing plan was a 'key part' of getting people back to work

In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Edward Argar said the mass testing plan was a 'key part' of getting people back to work

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock

In a round of interviews this morning, health minister Edward Argar said the mass testing plan was a ‘key part’ of getting people back to work

Matt Hancock faced backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way 'back to normality'

Matt Hancock faced backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way 'back to normality'

Matt Hancock faced backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way ‘back to normality’

Those coming back from red list countries would have to quarantine in a hotel for ten days, while arrivals from amber destinations will have to isolate at home.  

The traffic light scheme announcement came as the PM confirmed the Government will press ahead with plans for domestic and international vaccine passports, despite a growing Tory revolt.

Many Conservative MPs support using the documents for international travel but they oppose using them for day-to-day life. 

Backlash at ministers ‘moving goalposts’ as Hancock claims mass testing is only way to restore normality 

Matt Hancock faced a backlash after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way ‘back to normality’ – despite fears a surge in ‘false positives’ could actually derail the lockdown easing. 

Experts have warned that when mass testing is carried out the slightly lower accuracy of the rapid kits – especially when conducted at home – means that thousands of people will get the wrong results.

Tory MPs have voiced alarm that any rise in cases could lead to further lockdown easing being delayed.

But Mr Johnson said that a future involving continuous Covid-19 testing would not be ‘too onerous’.

Asked what the future will look like after June 21, he said: ‘I think a great deal depends on the continuing success of the vaccine rollout and us continuing to satisfy the four tests.

‘If things continue to go well, I do think for many people in many ways, life will begin to get back to at least some semblance of normality.’

He added: ‘A world in which we continue to have testing is not going to be too onerous.’

Mr Johnson said he regularly uses quick-result tests before going on visits.

‘I think lateral flow testing will be a great advantage to us all as we go forward,’ he said.

‘I do a lateral flow test before I go out on a visit to test whether or not I might conceivably be infectious – I think it is a sensible thing to do.

‘The NHS is now offering, as I say, these free tests and I think people should use them.’

Former minister Steve Baker said that the false positives generated by tens of millions of additional tests could be enough to knock the Government’s roadmap off course.

Mr Baker, deputy chairman of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said: ‘It is now obvious that in an environment of low prevalence, mass asymptomatic testing makes false positives a real issue.’ 

Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, told the BBC that mass testing was a ‘scandalous waste of money’.

‘When the prevalence rate of coronavirus falls as low as it is at the moment then an increasing proportion of cases are likely to be false positives meaning that cases and contacts will self isolate unnecessarily.’

Prof Pollock said mass testing was ‘going to do more harm than good’, complained about a lack of evidence from the government. 

Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne told MailOnline there was a danger that false positives could cause issues with the lockdown easing.

‘This is a year overdue. This time last year the great release was going to be a testing programme… we were going to test ourselves each day before we went out.

‘That was the first great hope, that testing would be the release to normality. Now it’s back again but in the intervening period haven’t we surpassed that?

‘Isn’t vaccination supposed to have provided us with the release? What is the purpose of us testing ourselves each day if the vaccination programme is a success?

He also questioned how many people ‘are really going to test themselves twice a week’.

‘We’ve already discovered it’s quite difficult to get people to test themselves at all even if they have symptoms.’

Sir Desmond said the false positive rate was ‘small but clearly when you are talking about millions of tests clearly it becomes a significant factor’.  

Health minister Edward Argar told Sky News the testing was a ‘key part’ of getting people back to work.

‘In terms of the reliability of the tests, I think recent Test and Trace analysis around this suggests that out of 1,000 lateral flow tests, there was less than one false positive within those 1,000,’ he said.

‘So that is still a highly accurate test which can play a really important part in reopening our country and our businesses, because it is so simple to take.’ 

Mr Argar said the costs would be within the existing two-year £37billion NHS Test and Trace budget. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘I suspect in the first instance, a lot of them will be used by people who are starting to go back into their workplace again, as the economy starts opening up again, as pubs start opening for outside drinks and shops start opening again and as people start going back to their offices and businesses.

‘So I suspect that will be a very large proportion of people who use these tests.’

Writing in the Mail, Jenny Harries, head of the new UK Health Security Agency, said twice-weekly testing could ‘help us get back to normal’.

She added: ‘If we are going to reclaim our lost freedoms for the long term, we must ensure we can withstand expected but unpredictable attacks in the form of variants of the virus.

‘That will require us to use the massive testing capacity to discover where variants of concern are and respond to them swiftly.’ 

At a press conference this evening, the Prime Minister will confirm the next stage of the release from lockdown is on schedule – with shops, gyms and hairdressers allowed to reopen from April 12 (stock photo)

At a press conference this evening, the Prime Minister will confirm the next stage of the release from lockdown is on schedule – with shops, gyms and hairdressers allowed to reopen from April 12 (stock photo)

At a press conference this evening, the Prime Minister will confirm the next stage of the release from lockdown is on schedule – with shops, gyms and hairdressers allowed to reopen from April 12 (stock photo)

Yesterday’s announcement introduces a universal mass testing regime for England which is likely to become part of the ‘new normal’ and remain in place for many months.

NHS and care home staff, along with millions of school children are already using fast-turnaround tests twice a week.

The tests are said to have identified 120,000 cases that might not otherwise have been picked up.

Government sources said that more than 100,000 businesses have also requested test kits to run their own schemes designed to make workplaces Covid secure.

Under the new regime, which will be introduced on Friday, people will be able to request packs of test kits for home use.

Individuals will also have the opportunity to get tested at council-run sites or as part of workplace schemes.

And a new ‘Pharmacy Collect’ scheme will be introduced, allowing adults to pick up boxes of seven rapid tests.

The new drive will use so-called ‘lateral flow tests’ which provide on-the-spot results in the same way as a pregnancy test.

Users still have to take a swab from their nose and throat, but the results can be determined at home in half an hour, without the need for laboratory analysis.

Health sources last night said the tests produced fewer than one false positive in a thousand.

But this could still result in almost 1,000 false cases for every one million taken.

Ministers have now agreed that anyone testing positive will be offered a ‘gold standard’ PCR test to confirm the result.

New technology means these tests can also now be used to detect new variants of the virus, allowing their spread to be picked up more quickly.

The Government was unable to say how much the new scheme would cost.

But with tests thought to cost at least £5 each, take-up of 25million would generate a bill of more than £1billion a month. 

HOW LATERAL FLOW TESTS ARE ONLY TRUSTWORTHY WHEN ADMINISTERED BY TRAINED STAFF

Lateral flow tests are only accurate at diagnosing coronavirus when administered by trained professionals, studies have repeatedly shown. 

The tests, which give results in as little as 15 minutes, use swabs of the nose or throat. Samples are then mixed in a testing liquid and put into a plastic cassette which can detect the presence or absence of coronavirus and then produce an image of a line, the same way as a pregnancy test, to indicate whether it is positive or negative.

The Department of Health and NHS are instructing people to use the tests on themselves, despite manufacturers of some kits saying they shouldn’t be used as DIY swabs.

Both the swabbing procedure and the use of the test cassette can easily be done wrong and affect the accuracy of the test. 

If the swab isn’t done for long enough, or deep enough into the nose or throat, it may not pick up fragments of virus. Medical professionals are also able to use nasopharyngeal swabs, which go right to the back of the nostril, whereas this is not advised for people who test themselves.

And if the sample isn’t properly inserted into the cassette the result might be wrong, or people may misread the display when it produces a result. 

SELF-TESTING CUT ACCURACY FROM 79% TO 58%

A University of Oxford and Public Health England evaluation of the Innova lateral flow test, which is being widely used in the UK, found its sensitivity – the proportion of positive cases it detected – fell from 79 per cent to 58 per cent when it was used by untrained members of the public instead of lab experts. 

Based on this evaluation, officials pushed ahead and used it for a real-world self-testing trial.

PILOT IN LIVERPOOL FOUND FEWER THAN HALF OF POSITIVES

When the same Innova test was trialled on members of the public in Liverpool – with people taking their own swabs and trained military staff operating the tests – the swabs picked up just 41 per cent of positive cases.

In the study the rapid tests detected 891 positive results, compared to lab-based PCR swabs that found 2,829 positives in the same group. This means 1,938 people got a wrong negative result from the rapid test.

The study didn’t compare this to professionally done rapid tests, but the manufacturer Innova claims its test is 95 per cent sensitive in lab conditions. 

…BUT TESTING DONE BY MEDICS IN SLOVAKIA ‘REDUCED INFECTIONS’ 

Despite rapid lateral flow tests getting bad press, officials in Slovakia used them on 5.2million people – almost the entire population of 5.5m – in a trial that a study later estimated to have cut the country’s infection rate by 60 per cent.

The tests used were between 70 and 90 per cent accurate and all the swabs and evaluations were carried out by trained medical workers. They used deep nasopharyngeal swabs, that go to the back of the nose, whereas self-testing generally relies on a swab of only the nostril.

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine researchers said that the scheme successfully weeded out coronavirus cases that wouldn’t have been found otherwise, slashing the number of cases by over half in a week during a lockdown. 

HOW RAPID TESTS ARE DIFFERENT TO LAB-BASED PCR SWABS 

Lateral flow tests are an alternative to the gold standard PCR test – known scientifically as polymerase chain reaction testing – which is more expensive and more labour-intensive but more accurate.

PCR tests also use a swab but this is then processed using high-tech laboratory equipment to analyse the genetic sequence of the sample to see if any of it matches the genes of coronavirus.

This is a much more long-winded and expensive process, involving multiple types of trained staff, and the analysis process can take hours, with the whole process from swab to someone receiving their result taking days.

It is significantly more accurate, however. In ideal conditions the tests are almost 100 per cent accurate at spotting the virus, although this may be more like 70 per cent in the real world. 

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We all want a return to normality… regular tests can only help, writes DR JENNY HARRIES

The new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) launched last week with the unique mission to protect the nation’s health, both from existing hazards – such as hepatitis or radiation risks – but also from external and emerging threats.

As its first priority, it will continue the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Regular, rapid testing means we are finding cases of the virus that we wouldn’t otherwise detect, which prevents transmission to families, friends and communities – and which could ultimately save lives.

Around one in three people experiences no symptoms when they contract the virus and by getting tested regularly people will rapidly break chains of transmission that could begin unwittingly.

Twice-weekly testing using lateral flow devices, commonly known as LFDs, has already protected millions of people who need to leave home for work, including frontline NHS workers, care home staff and residents, and schoolchildren and their families.

Regular testing in the months ahead can help us all get back to normal, and from this Friday we will make twice-weekly LFD testing available to every person in England.

An LFD is the testing equivalent of a Formula 1 pit stop. With a rapid turnaround time of 30 minutes for a result, these swab tests can be done from the comfort of a living room and are capable of quickly giving a snap verdict on whether someone is or isn’t likely to be infectious.

Just like an experienced mechanic, people get quicker at doing the test, and get better results, the more frequently they carry them out.

Vaccines are tipping the scales in our favour but as cases, deaths and hospitalisation charts continue to fall, the importance of our testing and tracing capabilities grows.

An effective testing and tracing system is our radar for spotting new outbreaks and suppressing them and for watching out for new variants. The new variant in Kent, which rapidly increased cases across the country, is a stark reminder that viruses are shapeshifters and they mutate all the time.

Regular testing in the months ahead can help us all get back to normal, and from this Friday we will make twice-weekly LFD testing available to every person in England. Pictured: A student uses a swab at a testing site in the University of Hull's Allam Sport Centre

Regular testing in the months ahead can help us all get back to normal, and from this Friday we will make twice-weekly LFD testing available to every person in England. Pictured: A student uses a swab at a testing site in the University of Hull's Allam Sport Centre

Regular testing in the months ahead can help us all get back to normal, and from this Friday we will make twice-weekly LFD testing available to every person in England. Pictured: A student uses a swab at a testing site in the University of Hull’s Allam Sport Centre

Writing in the Mail, Jenny Harries, head of the new UK Health Security Agency, said twice-weekly testing could ‘help us get back to normal’

Writing in the Mail, Jenny Harries, head of the new UK Health Security Agency, said twice-weekly testing could ‘help us get back to normal’

Writing in the Mail, Jenny Harries, head of the new UK Health Security Agency, said twice-weekly testing could ‘help us get back to normal’

If we are going to reclaim our lost freedoms for the long term, we must ensure we can withstand expected but unpredictable attacks in the form of variants of the virus.

That will require us to use the massive testing capacity to discover where variants of concern are and respond to them swiftly. Our diagnostics system is ready for testing on a level that matches the vaccination rollout, both in scope and ambition. The UK is now a testing juggernaut.

At the most recent count we have been testing over a million people a day, genome sequencing 32,000 tests in a week, and we have traced and contacted 3.2million who have tested positive in the past year, and a further six million of their contacts.

Regular testing is a way we can all help to bring about the return of much that has been missing in all of our lives and I have every confidence people will continue to give their selfless support in this next stage, just as they have throughout this pandemic.

Dr Jenny Harries is chief executive of the UKHSA.

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