Twenty thousand households in England are contacted to participate in a follow-up study of coronaviruses in the general population.
The study aims to improve understanding of the levels of infection and the number of people who may be immune to the virus.
Volunteers will regularly provide nose and throat swabs to see if they have the virus.
The results will help inform the government’s strategy to ease the lockout.
Meanwhile, government science advisers will present their findings to ministers later on whether the public should wear masks.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) should advise that the public should not wear medical masks but should feel free to cover their faces with scarves or homemade masks.
The follow-up study announced by the Department of Health is the largest population to date in England, with 20,000 households contacted by the Office for National Statistics to participate in the pilot phase.
The tests will initially be performed once a week for five weeks, then monthly for 12 months.
People with and without symptoms of the virus will be tested – with participants from a representative sample of the UK population by age and geography.
Blood samples (antibody tests) will also be taken from adults in 1,000 households to find out if they have had the virus in the past and have developed some form of immunity. Monthly samples will continue to be taken for one year.
One of the big unknowns when it comes to coronavirus is the number of people infected but having no symptoms.
There is evidence that up to half of infections are asymptomatic.
Knowing the magnitude of this situation will be crucial to managing the progressive movements of locking and easing restrictions.
This study will help with this – and more. The first results are expected in early May and will also provide clues to the extent of transmission across the community.
The lack of tests means that the authorities can only estimate the spread of the virus from figures received at the hospital.
As we move forward, this will also allow the government to react quickly to any acceleration in transmission.
Meanwhile, the antibody component of the work – when a reliable test is available – will also add to all of this.
But surveillance is just one part of the armory the government needs to bring the UK back to normal life and keep the virus at bay.
A more difficult element to achieve is a widespread and effective testing regime. This is essential in order to contain any outbreak in any part of the population. We still don’t have that in place.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the research would answer “crucial questions” as policymakers, clinicians and scientists “continue to strengthen our understanding of this new virus”.
These include improving understanding of the proportion of people who have had the virus without symptoms and the duration of immunity to the disease.
The answers will refine the computer modeling used by scientists to test the impact of relaxing various locking measures before trying them.
The first results should be available next month.
“Together, these results will help us better understand the spread of the virus to date, predict the future trajectory and inform future actions that we will take, including the development of breakthrough tests and treatments,” said Mr. Hancock.
Screening for antibodies – those that show if someone has had the virus in the past – is considered crucial to providing a way out of the current lockdown, as well as providing data to those developing a vaccine.
But England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told Downing Street on Wednesday that there are currently no tests available that Public Health England has enough confidence in.
Earlier this month, the government admitted that none of the 3.5 million test kits it bought from China at a cost of £ 20 million was usable, but insisted on continuing to work with other potential suppliers.
Scientists at the University of Oxford are validating an antibody test, also known as the Elisa test, which will be used in this study.
According to Professor Derrick Crook, one of those coordinating the work program at the University of Oxford, they are in the process of having a “fully validated and accreditation-compliant test” by 4 may.
Introducing a blood test for antibodies and surveillance to determine the rate of infection among the public is one of the “five pillars” of the government’s testing strategy, designed to suppress the virus and prevent a resurgence of infections later this year.
The government promised 100,000 tests a day at the end of April – a commitment that Prime Minister Dominic Raab reaffirmed in questions from the Prime Minister on Wednesday.
Wednesday’s figures show that 22,814 tests were carried out.
“Won’t be eradicated”
The study comes after Professor Whitty warned that the UK should live with “disruptive” social distancing for at least the rest of the year.
In the “long term”, the ideal way out of the lockdown would be to use a “highly effective vaccine” or drugs to treat the disease, he said.
But he said the chance of having it in the next calendar year was “incredibly small.”
Instead, ministers will need to determine which locking measures should remain in place and which could be relaxed to ensure the best health outcomes.
Figures from Wednesday showed that another 759 people died from the virus in UK hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 18,100.
However, Raab told reporters at the coronavirus briefing that there was “light at the end of the tunnel” after it was confirmed that the UK had reached the peak of infection.
In other developments:
- Sir Keir Starmer, debuting Prime Minister’s questions as a Labor leader, said the UK had been “very slow and far behind other European countries” in testing.
- Professor Whitty says current statistics on deaths in nursing homes are probably “underestimated”
- All German states have announced plans to make facial masks mandatory to combat the spread of coronavirus
- Prince Louis was pictured making a colorful rainbow poster – a symbol of hope during the coronavirus lockdown – to mark his second birthday
- E-commerce giant eBay has built a new pilot electronic portal for NHS personnel to order Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which they say is in the final testing phase
- Downing Street denies anyone pressured the Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Ministry to withdraw his testimony to MEPs that a “political decision” had been made not to join EU programs to stock up on supplies in medical equipment
How have you been affected by coronavirus? Share your experiences by email.
Please include a contact number if you wish to speak to a BBC reporter. You can also contact us in the following ways: