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Covid: What is mass testing and how does it work?

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By Ian Westbrook
BBC News

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  • Coronavirus pandemic

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A mass coronavirus testing programme has been taking place in Liverpool.

There are now plans to extend it to other places, with Nottinghamshire thought to be next on the list.

How does mass testing work and what does it achieve?

What is mass testing and why is it important?

Mass testing means asking everyone to be tested, whether or not they have symptoms.

The idea is to find healthy people who may be infected, but not yet displaying symptoms. They can then be told to isolate and stopped from spreading the virus.

Currently, across most of England, people can only have a test if they already have symptoms. But during the Liverpool pilot, everyone living or working in the city is being offered a voluntary test.

Mass testing can be used in more targeted ways, including:

  • Regular testing in a hospital or care home to prevent outbreaks
  • To keep open places like schools and universities where the virus can spread
  • Helping people safely attend a cinema, theatre or football match with a one-off test before entry

Where is mass testing available?

Mobile testing sites have been set up across Liverpool, in places like care homes, schools, universities and workplaces.

People might be invited by their local authority to come for a test but they can also book their own online, or whole families can just turn up in their car.

About 2,000 military personnel are helping with logistics and delivering the tests across a potential 85 sites.

About 23,000 people have been tested in Liverpool since the pilot began, with 154 people receiving positive results. The city has a population of about half a million.

  • Who can get a coronavirus test?

  • How will Liverpool’s mass testing pilot work?
  • Can mass testing save us from another lockdown?

There are now plans to extend the scheme to other areas and Nottinghamshire is next on the list, the BBC understands.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says rapid tests are being sent out to 66 local directors of public health, including those in Yorkshire, the West Midlands, other parts of the North West, and the whole of the North East.

Mass testing could also be made available at universities, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said.

NHS staff in England will also start being tested for coronavirus twice a week. Routine testing of health workers already happens in the areas hardest hit by the virus.

Which tests are being offered?

The Liverpool pilot offers two types of testing, both involving swabbing the nose or throat – a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, and a lateral flow test.

The PCR test is regarded as the “gold standard” by epidemiologists, but may take up to a day or longer to produce a result as the sample is sent off to a laboratory. It is, however, the one used most around the world.

The lateral flow test involves a handheld kit that gives a result – a bit like a pregnancy test – in about 20 minutes, without the need for a lab. Fluid from a nasal swab or saliva goes on one end, then a marking appears if you are positive.

Liverpool’s public health director Matthew Ashton said the city has the capacity to carry out 50,000 lateral flow tests and 14,000 PCR tests a day.

What happens if I test positive?

Anyone who tests positive during the pilot must immediately self-isolate for at least 10 days. Their contacts will be traced by NHS Test and Trace.

All other people in their household must also self-isolate for 14 days from the day the person first became ill, or from the day of the test, if they have no symptoms.

Self-isolating means staying at home and not leaving it even to buy food, medicines or other essentials, or for exercise.

People should order online groceries, or ask friends or family to help out by getting what is needed and leaving items outside the front door.

Anyone in England who fails to self-isolate after a positive test can be fined up to £10,000.

Anyone on low income who was instructed to self-isolate in a phone call from NHS Test and Trace should be able to claim a £500 payment from their local authority.

What difference could mass testing make?

In September, Mr Johnson outlined his “moonshot” plan to control the virus with mass testing, possibly by next spring.

He said that “in the near future” he wanted to start using testing to allow people who tested negative “to behave in a more normal way”.

Other countries have already introduced mass testing programmes.

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