People in England will soon have access to a COVID-19 test twice a week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, as the country looks ahead to post-pandemic life.
Johnson said on Monday that the programme would break the chain of transmissions and help detect asymptomatic cases, which are believed to account for one in three of all infections.
The mass-testing plan, which will come into effect on Friday, will see lateral flow kits capable of providing results in about 30 minutes made available, free of charge, at COVID-19 testing sites, pharmacies and via the post.
Next week, England is set to ease further out of lockdown, a move underpinned by the swift rollout of vaccines.
“As we continue to make good progress on our vaccine programme and with our roadmap to cautiously easing restrictions underway, regular rapid testing is even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted,” Johnson said in a statement.
Anyone who tests positive using the tests will be expected to self-isolate along with all other members of their household.
They will then be able to order a follow-up PCR swab test, which is more accurate and used to officially confirm cases.
If a negative result is returned, the individual will be allowed to end their quarantine.
Health minister Matt Hancock said mass testing would help officials “quickly spot positive cases and squash any outbreaks”.
“The vaccine programme has been a shot in the arm for the whole country, but reclaiming our lost freedoms and getting back to normal hinges on us all getting tested regularly,” he said.
Johnson eyes next easing of measures
Later on Monday, Johnson will give a televised speech outlining his plans to relaunch international travel and reopen sections of the economy.
He is expected to confirm that all retail, outdoor hospitality and hairdressers can reopen on April 12 in England.
A traffic-light system for countries based on infection and vaccination levels is set be used for international travel, which could resume by May 17. Overseas holidays are currently banned by law.
Johnson’s Conservative Party government will also stage several so-called vaccine passport trials in the coming weeks – including for the FA Cup final at London’s Wembley football stadium – to see if the passes can help secure mass gatherings at stadiums, nightclubs and concerts.
But critics, including scores of legislators from within Johnson’s own party, have warned the certificates may prove “divisive and discriminatory”.
Rapid vaccination programme
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following their own, gradual paths out of a strict lockdown that was imposed at the beginning of this year.
The moves follow an inoculation campaign that has seen at least one dose of vaccine given to more than 31.5 million people nationwide – more than half of the adult population.
More than five million people have been fully inoculated with one of the two vaccines currently being used – those developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech.
With more than 126,000 deaths, the UK has the fifth-highest death toll in the world. On Saturday, the UK reported 10 deaths – a six-month record low and a huge fall from the highs of more than 1,000 in peak periods.
The vaccine rollout has boosted hopes of a steady recovery this year, with Johnson seeking to gradually lift all restrictions in England by mid-June.