Mass community testing ‘achievable within days’ says expert

There is nothing preventing the UK introducing mass, South Korean-style, drive-through coronavirus community testing within a matter of days, a disease expert has suggested.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said Britain needs to do a “hell of a lot more testing” to discover where “the virus is going under the radar and where it’s lurking”, adding: “We’ve got to find the hotspots.”

Prof Pennington, 81, who led the public inquiry into the 1996 E.coli outbreak in Lanarkshire, told the PA news agency: “Without that kind of intelligence we’re fighting it with one hand tied behind our back.

“There is no reason we have to wait to start really ramping up our testing regime, it could be rolled out on a grand scale by the end of the week.”

He welcomed the Government’s announcement on Wednesday that the NHS was now moving to carry out 25,000 coronavirus tests per day within four weeks.

Testing is prioritised for hospital patients and those at most risk of serious illness, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

But Prof Pennington said anybody in self-isolation or with concerns should have the option of getting tested in a 24/7 nationwide regime to help arrest the virus spread.

Laboratories, universities, research centres, and environmental staff from local authorities, could be enlisted en masse to conduct the non-invasive swab tests at places like supermarket car parks, he said, pointing to the example of South Korea.

The UK has seen some drive-through testing in places including Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, but the priority is on in-hospital testing.

“University centres have lots of staff not doing lab work of this kind, but they could be brought in almost overnight”, he added.

He acknowledged there would be administration and ethical issues in holding and processing the data, but said it is an “achievable” aim for the UK, adding: “I think it would make a substantial improvement in our ability to control the pandemic.”

The World Health Organisation has called on all countries to “test, test, test”.

Currently the NHS and Public Health England are carrying out about 5,000 tests per day, which is expected to rise to 10,000 per day by next week, the Government said.

Mr Hancock said: “Public safety is my top priority, and radically ramping up testing for coronavirus is a key part of our plan to protect lives.”

The Government also said it is “testing a sample of the population to help us understand the level of virus circulating in the community”, in a “robust surveillance programme”.

As of Wednesday morning, 56,221 people had been tested in the UK, of whom 53,595 were confirmed negative and 2,626 positive, the Government said.

South Korea has so far tested more than 270,000 people, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

It added more than 16,000 people were currently being tested.