LONDON (Reuters) – Britain on Thursday said it was investing to develop rapid COVID-19 tests, with a view to soon rolling out widespread, systematic testing to pick up outbreaks early, amid criticism over backlogs in its current testing system.
The health ministry said it would put 500 million pounds ($666 million) into trials of rapid COVID-19 tests and into population-testing for the disease.
Health minister Matt Hancock has said he hopes mass testing using faster COVID-19 tests can be rolled out towards the end of the year, adding that they are key to restoring freedoms after months of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I want to solve the problem by having the next generation tests at a radically bigger scale. You can’t do that on the current technology very easily,” he told BBC television.
Asked when it would be available for everyone, he said: “Over the coming weeks and months ahead. We’re starting the roll out today.”
The funding will be used to expand existing trials of saliva tests and a rapid 20-minute test in southern England, while a new, community trial in Salford, northwest England, will assess the benefit of population-testing, under which people are regularly tested regardless of whether they have symptoms, so that any cases can be picked up before they have spread widely.
Currently, official health service advice is only for citizens to get a COVID-19 test if they have symptoms, although more regular testing is available for certain professions, such as care workers.
However, the government has come into criticism after some who tried to book tests were reportedly told to travel many miles as capacity is directed where the need is greatest.
“The time was right to think about scaling up testing to the wider community and asymptomatic testing over the summer when we were relatively COVID-secure,” Alan McNally, Professor of Microbial Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Birmingham, told BBC radio.
“Ideally we would be far more advanced in our ability to handle, what we’re already beginning to see, an increase in requirement for COVID testing.”