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Government announces plans for mass asymptomatic Covid testing ‘by spring’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out a plan for mass Covid testing of asymptomatic people, in a move which he said would allow some return to normal life.

In the first press conference for some time, Mr Johnson also set out new stricter rules for socialising in England and urged the public to avoid booking Covid tests if they do not have symptoms – amid a recent shortage of tests.

The operation ‘Moonshot’ plans, which have been widely reported to target 10m tests daily, rely on new tests coming onstream which are quicker at delivering results.

But Mr Johnson said this was an ‘alternative plan’ for being able to return to normal life, as scientific advances in vaccines and treatments are ‘not guaranteed’.

Under the plans, venues and work places would be able to reopen in full but only allow those in who test negative on the spot.

Mr Johnson said ‘work is under way and we will get on at pace until we get there’, adding that the Government is ‘hoping this approach will be widespread from the spring’.

Meanwhile, in the shorter term, Mr Johnson explained the new ‘rule of six’, which will replace current rules on meetings of people from different households.

As of Monday next week, in England, a maximum of six people from multiple households (or bubbles) can meet outdoors or indoors, with legal repercussions for those who break the rules.

Mr Johnson stressed this was not another lockdown but ‘the whole point is to avoid a second national lockdown’, as data shows the UK on a similar upwards trajectory for Covid cases as recently seen in France and Spain.

It comes as GPs today told Pulse they were inundated with patients asking for Covid tests after failing to book a test via the Government booking website.

NHS Test and Trace apologised for lab problems, but health secretary Matt Hancock blamed members of the public who were booking tests despite having no Covid symptoms.

Today’s press conference also saw the Prime Minister admit that social distancing had up until now been ‘confusing’.

BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘The Prime Minister has finally recognised that existing rules were too confusing, and today’s announcement needs to mark a turning point in the Government’s approach to communication – ending months of inconsistent public advice.

‘And after seeing the worrying surge in cases over the last week, it’s only right that these new restrictions and wider measures to enforce adherence among the public are put in place to help reduce the further spread of Covid-19.

‘As the pandemic has gone on, there has been little attempt to clarify conflicting messages and this must end. Take working arrangements, for example – employees are still being encouraged back into offices – which increases travel and contact with others – rather than providing more support to ensure people can work from home. Rules on where face coverings should be worn continue to be inconsistent, too.’

According to Dr Nagpaul, a GP in North London, delaying the new rules on social gatherings until after the weekend also ‘seems illogical, with infections remaining above 2,500 a day’.

Regarding the new mass testing programme, Dr Nagpaul pointed out that it was ‘unclear how this will operate based on the huge problems we’ve seen with lab capacity’.

He also urged caution about relying on negative tests of those without symptoms ‘both because of the high rate of “false negatives” and the potential to miss those who are incubating the virus’.

‘It’s now vital that the Government delivers on today’s announcements and ensures the new restrictions are adhered to, to prevent further spread. Without this, we risk not only a second wave, but also an influx of pressure on the health service and potentially, going right back to where we started,’ Dr Nagpaul concluded.

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