Boris Johnson’s own scientists tore the Prime Minister’s ‘moonshot’ Covid-19 testing plan to shreds live on television.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister said mass testing would be piloted in Salford next month, and could eventually allow a return to a ‘normal life.’
But minutes after he announced the plans, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the technology was not yet available, warning he should not put a date on when it would be because “that’s not how science works”.
And Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance said it would be “completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen.”
The Prime Minister said new types of testing, which are not yet available, will allow “millions” to be performed every day.
And after telling the nation he wanted to simplify and reduce confusion around coronavirus policy, Mr Johnson said, in French, that the tests could provide “a laissez passer, a freedom pass” to allow people to behave more normally.
And minutes after urging the public not to get tested unless they are showing symptoms, to reduce strain on the Test and Trace system, he outlined his plan to test millions of people who don’t have symptoms.
He said that in the future the government wants to identify people who are negative – who don’t have the virus – to allow them to “behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge that they can’t infect anyone with the virus.”
“We believe that new types of test which are simple, quick and scalable, will become available,” he said, adding that he hoped they would deliver results as quickly as 20 minutes.
And he said it would be possible for “millions” of the tests to be performed every day.
As a result, he said, theatres and sports venues would be able to test all audience members one day and allow non-infectious people to enter the following day.
He said it would allow workplaces to operate as they were before the virus struck.
And he said it could be used to reduce the period of quarantine for people who had been in contact with an infected person, or who had travelled abroad.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, standing alongside the Prime Minister at the Number 10 Press Conference, said: “The underlying technology is used for other diseases in terms of diagnosis, so it’s not a complete wild guess, this is something that’s building on very established principles.
“My view is that I think it’s likely that we will have tests of this sort at some point in the not-too-distant future.
“But ‘not too distant future’ covers quite a large time range. So I think it’s important that what we don’t do is pin ourselves to a date and say ‘by this time this will be achieved, because that is not how science moves.”
Mr Johnson said a pilot scheme using the tests, which do not yet exist, will start in Salford next month, with audiences in indoor and outdoor venues.
He said: “There are a number of challenges. We need the technology to work. We need to source the necessary materials to manufacture so many tests.
“We need to put in place a sufficient distribution network. And we need to work through the numerous logistical challenges.
He added: “As I say, we’re not there yet.”
Mr Johnson then urged people not to get tested if they do not have symptoms.