What is Operation Moonshot? Boris Johnson’s plan for mass coronavirus testing raises concern

Health experts caution against believing mass testing could be ‘slam dunk’ on pandemic

Kate Ng
Thursday 10 September 2020 10:40
Grant Shapps on PM's moonshot attempt: Something which doesn't exist at the moment

The government plans an ambitious mass testing programme, codenamed Operation Moonshot, which aims to conduct up to 10 million Covid-19 tests a day by early 2021.

But scientists and health professionals, including the government’s own chief scientific adviser, have raised doubts that the programme would work. The transport secretary admitted on Thursday the technology for the programme does not yet exist.

Under Operation Moonshot, Boris Johnson hopes to have millions of coronavirus tests processed daily and yield results within 15 minutes.

The British Medical Journal, which reported that it had seen a leaked memo, said the programme is expected to cost over £100 billion and aims to “support economic activity and a return to normal life”.

During the government’s first coronavirus briefing since July, Mr Johnson said the government was “working hard” to ramp up testing capacity to 500,000 daily tests by the end of October.

According to the BMJ, the programme, if successful, would allow testing of the entire UK population on a weekly basis. The government would depend heavily on the private sector to deliver on the mass testing, with firms signed on including GSK for supplying tests, AstraZeneca for laboratory capacity, and Serco and G4S for logistics and warehousing.

The testing would be rolled out in workplace, entertainment venues, football stadiums, GP surgeries, pharmacies, schools and other local sites.

The leaked documents on Operation Moonshot also revealed that the government plans to roll out “digital immunity passports” which would allow people who test negative to return to workplaces, travel and participate in other activities, reported the BMJ.

But Sir Patrick Vallance said just moments after Mr Johnson talked up the project that it would be “completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen”.

Deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said the success of the project would depend on how it is handled.

Speaking to ITV’s Peston, she said: “We do want to get back to as much normality as we can and any opportunity to do that through a new testing programme or using different testing technology is clearly a good thing to be following, but it’s not quite as simple as just doing that.”

But the technology required to roll out the programme widely and provide a test that can give results within 20 and 90 minutes does not exist yet, Grant Shapps admitted.

Mr Shapps told Sky News: “We know this isn’t simple to achieve, but we hope it will be possible through technology and new tests to have a test which works by not having to return the sample to a lab.

“This is technology that, to be perfectly blunt, requires further development - there isn’t a certified test in the world that does this but there are people that are working on prototypes.”

Experts have also raised concerns that the millions of tests may come up with false positives or negatives, which could impact wider society.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter warned that although mass testing may appear to be a solution to getting better control of the pandemic, “no tests are perfect”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “So you have to set a threshold that is not very sensitive, that will pick up anything that hints at being infectious. That means that such a test will always generate a very large number of false positives.

“That doesn’t matter so much perhaps if you’re just being stopped going into a theatre - the point is it is not just a matter of testing. You’ve got this whole downstream business that that person will be told to isolate, their contacts will be told to isolate and so on.

“And if you only have one per cent false positives among all the people who are not infectious, and you’re testing the whole country, that’s 600,000 people unnecessarily labelled as positives.”

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