Test to be validated this week, then made available to healthcare workers and general public.
Millions of 15-minute home coronavirus tests are set to be available on the high street or for Amazon delivery to people self-isolating, according to Public Health England (PHE), in a move that could restore many people’s lives to a semblance of pre-lockdown normality.
Prof Sharon Peacock, the director of the national infection service at PHE, told MPs on the science and technology committee that mass testing in the UK would be possible within days, saying evaluation of the fingerprick tests should be completed this week. The government later took a more cautious line, saying that the tests would not be available so quickly.
The UK government has bought 3.5m tests – which reveal whether someone has had the virus and is therefore thought to have some immunity – and is ordering millions more, it has said.
At the prime minister’s daily press conference on Wednesday, the government’s medical and scientific advisers said they needed to be certain the tests worked before they could be made available.
“The key thing for us to do is evaluate – are these tests accurate enough to be used by the general public?” said Chris Whitty, chief medical officer. “If they are incredibly accurate, we will work out the quickest way to release them. If they are not accurate, we will not release any of them.”
The tests would, he said, “completely transform what we can do” – but were not as important as the antigen tests which are used to diagnose Covid-19 in sick hospital patients.
Boris Johnson said they would make the antibody tests available when they could. “We will do it as soon as possible,” he said. “We are massively ramping up our testing programme.”
The home test, which looks like a pregnancy test, involves pricking a finger to produce a drop of blood, which is then analysed by the device.
“Several million tests have been purchased for use. These are brand new products. We have to be clear they work as they are claimed to do,” Peacock said. “Once they have been tested this week and the bulk of tests arrive, they will be distributed into the community.”
Amazon has agreed to carry out distribution and the tests are also set to go on sale in chemist shops.
Photo credit: A medical biologist handles a swab to test a patient for coronavirus. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA