New doubts have been raised about ‘Operation Moonshot’, the government’s £ 100 billion test plan, after a pilot project to regularly test a quarter of a million people was suspended and then significantly reduced.
The trial, in Salford, Greater Manchester, was heralded as the first step in a mass testing mission which Boris Johnson said “would allow people to lead more normal lives without the need for social distancing.”
The 254,000 residents were ultimately due for regular saliva tests – a scientific breakthrough according to Johnson will return results “in 90 or even 20 minutes.”
But six weeks after the pilot began, it was suspended last week and on Tuesday the government admitted it would now be smaller in scope and focused on “high-risk environments and groups”.
Regular testing would only be offered to certain residents “in certain areas of high density housing,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Affairs (DHSC) said.
When it launched in early September, the government promised a pilot project with up to 250 tests per day that would be quickly expanded to cover the entire area, with regular testing at sites across the city.
The Salford pilot was testing people “in indoor and outdoor places,” meaning that “workplaces could be open to anyone who tested negative that morning and allowed them to behave in a way. normal before Covid, ”said the Prime Minister.
But sources said the pilot program was struggling to persuade even 250 Salfordians to provide saliva samples. An NHS official also admitted earlier this month that more progress needed to be made as the target was not met.
Speaking to Health Secretary Matt Hancock in parliament on Tuesday, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labor MP for Salford and Eccles, said: “Salford was to be one of the pilot areas testing this Moonshot program. However, my local council confirmed to me this morning that some time ago they asked the Department of Health to share the clinical validity data behind this new technology.
“To this day that question remains unanswered and until this morning Salford City Council had been ordered to suspend the program – can the secretary therefore confirm his current plans for the development of mass testing?” “
Hancock did not respond to him, but the Guardian understands that shortly before rising in parliament, Salford Council was informed that the pilot’s break had been reversed.
A DHSC spokesperson said the project was underway. “The pilot project focuses on testing in high-risk environments and groups to prevent and manage outbreaks, and regular testing will continue to be offered to residents of Salford in certain areas of high-density housing.. The Optigene LAMP swabless test used in the Salford pilot is ongoing and has already proven effective. “
Announcing the Salford pilot on September 3, the DHSC said it was part of a £ 500million project testing next-generation test technology and increased testing capacity.
Paul Dennett, the directly-elected mayor of Salford, said council officials told him this week that his participation in Operation Moonshot was suspended due to a lack of clarity on the accuracy of the test system saliva.
“Today we received further correspondence from DHSC, after searching for a written update for several weeks, ‘relaunching’ the community testing project with an emphasis on more targeted testing towards individuals and communities. high risk – as opposed to all mass city community testing is being rolled out after an initial few weeks of concept testing.
“We are reviewing the new correspondence… and will come to a conclusion soon, especially given the urgent need to update our city residents.