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The government has bought hundreds of millions of one-hour COVID-19 tests to help reunite families at Christmas, a scientific adviser has said.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and a member of the vaccine task force, confirmed that officials were hoping to save Christmas by distributing the cheap £3-£5 tests, which are being trialled in Liverpool.
He told BBC’s Newscast radio podcast on Tuesday: “They [the quick tests] could be quite powerful for getting people home for Christmas, that’s what I think there’s a big focus on at the moment, because people all want to be home for Christmas but they don’t want to kill their grandparents.
“The plan is for two tests within 10 days of Christmas, maybe one just before people leave university and another one a week later.
“It’s also possible you can find packs of tests people could use at home just before the celebrations started just to be sure everybody was OK.”
Watch: Pilot testing scheme starts in Liverpool
The government will also use the lateral flow devices (LFDs) – which can turnaround results within an hour at the location of the test – at universities in England to support the return home of students in December.
These tests will be targeted based on a range of factors – including local prevalence rates, whether testing is available already, and the percentage of high-risk students in each institution.
Testing would have to be completed by 9 December to allow students who test positive to complete isolation at university before returning home.
The Department for Education has said it is also looking to utilise mass testing to make the return to higher education in January “as safe as possible”.
Prof Bell said the rapid tests would provide the chance to target people who would never have been tested before because there was not enough capacity.
He said they were an important part of the fight against the virus as people await a vaccine, and that scientists say they could prevent 90% of transmissions if they used at scale.
Prof Bell said the tests are also easy to use and do not involve an uncomfortable procedure.
He said: “These are anterior nasal swabs. You just put it on the inside of your nose and swish it around 5 or 10 times.
“They’re quite easy to do. Or you can do it as an oral swab and put it into the mouth to get saliva from the back of the mouth.”
Prof Bell said the government was hoping to make it a self-test in the future, adding: “It’s a bit like learning how to fill your car up at a self-service petrol station.
“The first time you do it you take a bit of time and then after that it’s pretty easy.”
He confirmed the government had bought hundreds of millions of the tests, and said they could ultimately be available to people in local shops.
On Tuesday, Prof Bell revealed he was “quite optimistic” that enough COVID-19 vaccinations would be carried out by Easter for normality to resume, provided authorities do not “screw up” distribution.
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