The UK’s success in vaccinating faster than anywhere else in Europe is putting Prime Minister Boris Johnson under pressure to figure out what’s next.
While Israel is proving to be a global test case for a country’s ability to vaccinate its way out of Covid, the UK is piloting whether nations can do enough to end harmful lockdowns and, essentially, learn to live with the disease.
Johnson believes the key is in mass testing in workplaces, schools, malls and theaters to ensure employees, students and customers are free of Covid. He is expected to set out details in a statement to Parliament on Monday as part of a “roadmap” that is unblocked and some retail and hospitality companies are already preparing.
Hundreds of thousands of tests could be sent in the mail every day, including to secondary school students. The idea is to fight outbreaks “like a ton of bricks,” said Foreign Minister Dominic Raab. It is these rapid tests, rather than “vaccination certificates” from other countries being considered, that the government wants to be a part of everyday life.
Britain has suffered the highest death toll on the continent, and its economy has declined the most since the Great Freeze of 1709, albeit with a fourth-quarter recovery. On the other hand, the UK has injected at least one vaccine into more than a quarter of its population and is also a pioneer in identifying potentially more dangerous mutations in the coronavirus.
The question is not how to eradicate Covid, but rather get to a point where people will never be banished to their homes again, schools will be closed, and businesses will be closed. Critics say previous test failures have contributed to the country’s death toll, while some epidemiologists say the potential path to a new normal is risky given the unreliability of so-called lateral flow tests compared to those that take longer to process .
“If you just sprinkle tests like fairy dust around, it won’t work,” said Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology and public health for the Royal Society of Medicine. “You’re always looking for the silver bullet, the one thing that fixes everything. Any public health doctor would tell you that doesn’t work.”
Johnson is aware that he is walking a tightrope. Many members of his ruling Conservative Party are calling for the economy to reopen faster. Retail sales, which are the lifeblood of the economy, fell more than twice as fast as expected in January, a report showed on Friday.
The government has signaled that it wants to proceed cautiously even with a dramatic drop in new cases and deaths and more than a quarter of adults already vaccinated. Initial measures include reopening some schools and allowing people in nursing homes to have “a regular indoor visitor” from March 8th. Visitors must be tested and wear personal protective equipment before entering the facility, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement Saturday.
The concept of mass testing is nothing new to the UK. In September Johnson announced its “Operation Moonshot” plan for millions of tests a day. While that language appears to have been dropped, the plan has been revived and the prime minister declared on February 15 that rapid testing could open the “toughest nuts” like nightclubs and theaters.
A £ 22 billion ($ 31 billion) testing program has increased capacity in the UK to rates among the highest in the world. Earlier this month, more than 760,000 tests were performed in one day. This includes both lab-processed polymerase chain reaction or PCR tests, which take a day or two, and lateral flow tests, which can give results within 30 minutes.
Companies are very keen to use the rapid tests. Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality Group’s executive director, said the industry is ready to do mass testing to ensure nightclubs and events such as conferences and weddings can be restarted “as soon as possible”.
Supermarkets are in talks with the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come up with a viable solution for shop worker testing and want the focus to be on tests that four have reported at home or in the community and People with knowledge of the discussions cannot be carried out in stores. Workers in the warehouse depots of some supermarkets are already testing cross-flow tests as it is easier to do than in busy stores, one person said.
More companies need to be encouraged to run regular tests to ensure a safer work environment, the Association of British Industries said. “This is where the business focus is currently, instead of requiring the introduction of a domestic vaccination certificate,” said a spokesman.
Johnson has turned down the idea that venues require vaccination certificates before people can enter, and the government is only looking into how to provide people with proof of vaccination to travel overseas when other countries need evidence. Ministers have also stated that it is up to companies to decide whether to request the vaccine from their employees.
Some companies are looking into potential “no jab, no job” contracts. Barchester Healthcare, which operates more than 200 nursing homes in the UK, is currently considering “making employees who refuse the vaccine for non-medical reasons unavailable for work based on their own choice”.
Health and social workers are already receiving regular tests, and companies with more than 50 employees can order rapid tests through a government website.
However, there are concerns about false representations and, in fact, how testing would work in practice for customers rather than workers.
The UK Cinema Association told the Daily Mirror that it would appear “impractical” to ask an audience of 250 to take a test and wait 30 minutes before viewing a two-hour film. It is also unclear whether companies will have to pay for the tests themselves and not the state in the longer term.
Some scientists believe that the real focus should be on motivating people to stay home for the required 10 days of isolation to make sure they don’t pass the virus on regardless of mass testing. Dido Harding, who runs the UK’s test-and-trace program, said this month that at least 20,000 people a day in England have failed to properly self-isolate.
Government officials say lateral flow devices are effective at detecting Covid-19, although anyone who tests negative should realize that no test is 100% accurate.
“When hundreds of thousands of people are tested with lateral flow tests each week, there are a lot of false results,” said Duncan Robertson, a disease modeler at Loughborough University in England. If a negative test is seen as a “green light” to go to a nightclub, there is a “very real risk that people will behave more riskily when they are actually Covid-positive”.
(This story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)