11 September 2020 00:33

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Operation Moonshot: What is it?

Operation Moonshot – the government's bid to accelerate testing from around 200,000 a day to 10m a day by early 2021 – was met with derision by Labour MPs in the House of Commons on Thursday when the health and care secretary Matt Hancock set out the scale of the ambition. Boris Johnson is so convinced that mass testing is the only way to avoid a second national lockdown, he is said to have asked for an UK-wide organisational setup like the Manhattan Project, the top-secret wartime endeavour led by the US to develop a nuclear bomb. "This is described by the prime minister as our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine, something the country cannot afford," one government official wrote about the project in late August. The files propose an intense daily "cadence" of meetings and situation reports running for at least 13 hours a day with twice-weekly updates for the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and weekly briefings for Boris Johnson every Wednesday. The draft "UK government mass-testing narrative" suggests that testing can also be used to give people assurance that, at least for a limited time, they are unlikely to have the virus and are at low risk of transmitting it to others.

"Or it could potentially be used to confer 'safe status' on an individual – testing to confirm they are negative now and so at low risk of transmitting for several days, or to confirm a level of immunity that will prevent them from becoming infected again for a defined, longer period of time via confirming a previous positive [virus] or antibody test, or, in time, vaccination." The current testing rate of around 200,000 per day is being limited by laboratory capacity, which means people with symptoms of coronavirus are being offered tests hundreds of miles from home or not at all. LONDON (AP) — Health experts on Thursday expressed strong skepticism about the British government's ambitious plans to carry out millions of coronavirus tests daily in a bid to help people resume normal lives in the absence of a vaccine. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday he wanted to roll out much simpler, faster mass testing "in the near future" to identify people who don't have the virus so that they can "behave in a more normal way in the knowledge they can't infect anyone else." Johnson said people with such negative "passports" could then attend events at places like theaters, and he said he was "hopeful" that the plan will be widespread by springtime. Johnson's suggestion of new tests that can give rapid results like a pregnancy test is "unlikely if not impossible" by the spring, he said, and the technology is far from reliable. Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, echoed the concerns, particularly given the problems Britain is already experiencing with laboratory capacity to process tests.

Officials say Britain currently have the capacity to process about 370,000 tests a day, and aim to ramp this up to 500,000 daily by the end of October. Leaked documents have a revealed multi-billion pound government plan that looks to a mass testing regimen as a way to live alongside coronavirus. The UK-wide plan is to ultimately see 10 million COVID-19 tests processed every day. A government briefing memo seen by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) estimated the programme would "cost over £100 billion to deliver". Ten million sub-hour tests a day is obviously an ambitious target, especially considering the ongoing criticisms about meeting demand in the current testing regimen.

To put this into perspective, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Thursday that 1.2 million tests were currently being carried out every week, with a capacity of 300,000 per day. The last daily figure to be released, on 2 September, revealed 175,687 tests had been carried out in the 24-hour period, with a capacity for 369,937. READ MORE: Concerns raised over '£100bn cost' of Moonshot Covid-19 testing plans He told Sky News: "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." It comes after months of notable bumps in the road with initial testing plans, starting with the widely-reported government target to reach 100,000 tests per day during lockdown at the end of April. Mixed reviews have been received from the scientific community, including from Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA), who said it was unclear how it would work given the "huge problems" currently seen with lab capacity. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has talked about how he hopes people can have "a happy and loving Christmas that people yearn for", if a vaccine is available or if the mass testing idea is realised.

But if we look at the Government's form on delivering on testing targets, just how likely is it that they can deliver millions of daily tests in time for the festive season, or even next spring? The Moonshot proposals come as the current testing programme faces considerable criticism for struggling to meet demand. Separate information, also seen by the BMJ, suggests this will include plans for 10 million tests to be processed each day. On Thursday Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that 1.2 million tests are being carried out per week at the moment, adding that there is a capacity for 300,000 per day – a far cry from a daily target of 10 million. On March 25, Boris Johnson said the Government was "massively ramping up" testing and it was hoped that "very soon" 250,000 tests would be carried out each day – significantly more than the most recent published daily figure of 175,687.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said officials are "working hard to increase our testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October". On April 2, after several days of intense scrutiny over failures in testing, Mr Hancock set a target of achieving 100,000 daily coronavirus tests in England by the end of April. At this time, only about 10,000 tests were being carried out each day, but Mr Hancock remained confident that the target would be met. "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," he told Sky News. Boris Johnson believes that a mass testing programme costing £100bn is "our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown" before a coronavirus vaccine is developed, according to leaked government documents. Memos seen by the British Medical Journal say that the prime minister's "Operation Moonshot" plan will "support economic activity and a return to normal life" by delivering up to ten million tests a day - albeit at enormous cost. Following his announcement yesterday of a blanket ban on social gatherings of more than six people, Johnson said the government was "working hard" to increase testing capacity to 500,000 a day by the end of October. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the Council of the British Medical Association, said it was unclear how Operation Moonshot would work given the "huge problems" currently seen with lab capacity.