Britain aims for virus testing success after a wobbly start

Full Screen
1 / 4

People walk across the plaza, around the old normal morning time 'rush hour', at Canary Wharf in central London, Thursday Sept. 3, 2020. Workers are being encouraged to return to their offices, with a Government information campaign reminding people about the efforts taken to make workplaces safe and "Covid-secure". (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)

LONDON – The British government announced Thursday that it is investing in a coronavirus test that gives results in as little as 20 minutes, touting it as the latest milestone in efforts to take the U.K. to the front of the global pack in testing for COVID-19.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government is expanding trials of two new rapid tests — a simple no-swab saliva test and another that gives results in minutes. Britain also is examining the feasibility of repeat testing of people without symptoms, something Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said could lessen the need for social distancing measures.

The government says it will spend up to 500 million pounds ($660 million) on efforts to achieve mass population testing, a project it has named “Operation Moonshot.”

“Short of a vaccine, this is the best chance we have of reducing social distancing whilst controlling the virus, especially with winter coming, with all the challenges that brings,” Hancock told the BBC.

Britain lacked mass testing capacity when its virus outbreak began and in March abandoned efforts to track and test the contacts of all people with confirmed cases, a decision authorities now say they regret.

The U.K. has hugely expanded its testing capacity since then. Anyone with coronavirus symptoms is eligible for a test, either at home or at a testing center, and officials say most get the results within 24 hours.

But the BBC reported Thursday that people are sometimes being directed to drive-through centers hundreds of miles away when they enter their postcodes into the government’s website.

Critics also say the British government is still not doing enough to find and isolate people with the coronavirus.