Here’s what you need to know about Boris Johnson’s mass testing plan Operation Moonshot

Boris Johnson introduced 'Operation Moonshot' on Wednesday (Getty Images)Boris Johnson introduced 'Operation Moonshot' on Wednesday (Getty Images)
Boris Johnson introduced 'Operation Moonshot' on Wednesday (Getty Images)

On September 9, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the UK government’s “moonshot” attempt to roll out millions of tests across the country.

The programme would cost a reported £100 billion for a mass at-home coronavirus testing programme, but experts are cautious about its ability to deliver.

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Now known as “Operation Moonshot”, it could see up to 10 million tests carried out every day from the comfort of people’s own homes.

Here’s what we know so far.

How will Operation Moonshot work?

Johnson and his ministers are putting their faith in a test that does not need to be processed in a lab to be developed, so that users get their results in a matter of minutes rather than days.

Similar to a pregnancy test, the saliva test would eliminate the need for people to travel – sometimes long distances – to testing centres before returning home to wait for the result.

Does the technology exist?

Some scientists have been quick to point out that no such test has been developed, meaning that it could be some time before a social life-saving test programme can be implemented.

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Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said on Thursday: “There are prototypes which look as though they have some effect, but they’ve got to be tested properly.

“We would be completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen.”

How much will it cost?

Operation Moonshot could cost as much as NHS England’s £114 billion budget in 2018/19, as set out in documents seen by the British Medical Journal.

Last week the Government pledged £500 million for a new community-wide repeat testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester, as part of a pilot scheme for a no-swab saliva test.

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Residents will be invited for a weekly test, with up to 250 carried out each day, while existing trials of tests in Southampton and other parts of Hampshire will also be expanded.

What is the goal of Operation Moonshot?

It is hoped that by rolling out a test programme of this scale, the government will be able to reopen society and get the economy back up and running before a vaccine has been developed.

The government is likely hoping to provide good news of some sort after the limiting of group meetings in England, with the threat of a fine for non-compliance.

Previewing the plans, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the programme would allow Covid-negative people to “behave in a more normal way in the knowledge they can’t infect anyone else with the virus”.

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What do the experts say?

If all goes to plan, it could open up the economy, potentially spelling an end to restrictions -  from quarantine for holidaymakers to spectator bans at sports events.

But leading statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said the “huge danger” was that there could be a “very large number of false positives”.

That would result in large numbers of people self-isolating unnecessarily, which could actually end up damaging the economy.

What are the problems with the current testing programme?

The UK’s current testing regime is far from perfect, with countless reports of patients being asked to travel hundreds of miles to a test centre.

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One man, from Maidstone, Kent, who asked not to be named, revealed to the PA news agency that he was asked to make a 400-mile round trip for a test, only for his results to then be lost.

On Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock also blamed the shortage of testing slots on symptom-free people attending for a test, despite the fact people can be symptom-free and still spread the virus.

When will this new ‘Moonshot’ testing be available?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was sent out to defend the plans on Thursday morning, but he declined to give a timeframe.

He was realistic about the fact that it could be a long time before a reliable test is ready, saying: “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.”

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What does moonshot mean? 

According to moonshot “in a technology context, is an ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits.”