So-called “freedom passes” were dangled as the reward for areas of England forced to retain the toughest restrictions when the lockdown ends on 2 December – as the prime minister announced they will last until next March.
There would be a “six-week surge of testing” in all tier 3 areas, MPs were told, as the Operation Moonshot programme is expanded from its trial in Liverpool.
“If it works we should be able to offer those who test negative the prospect of fewer restrictions – for example, meeting up in certain places with others who have also tested negative,” Mr Johnson said.
However, the prime minister admitted: “The system is untried and there are, of course, many unknowns.”
The prospect of new freedoms in return for negative tests was put forward despite doubts over the accuracy of the new 20-minute lateral-flow tests – far quicker than standard lab tests.
Although they achieved 79 per cent accuracy when used by laboratory scientists, that score fell to 73 per cent when used by trained healthcare staff – and only 58 per cent when people did it themselves.
Nevertheless, Mr Johnson argued they were “contributing to a very substantial fall in infection” in Liverpool, where more than 200,000 people had joined the trial.
And he added: “Those towns and regions which engage in community testing will have a much greater chance of easing the rules, the tiering, that they currently endure.”
The comments came as Mr Johnson confirmed the second lockdown will end on schedule – but be replaced by a tougher system of tiers, after the first failed to tame the surge in infections.
It means that, in tier 2, pubs will only be able to serve alcohol alongside a substantial meal, with only takeaways and deliveries allowed into the top tier 3.
“From next Wednesday, people will be able to leave their home for any purpose and meet others in outdoor public spaces, subject to the rule of six, collective worship, weddings and outdoor sports can resume, and shops, personal care, gyms and the wider leisure sector can reopen,” the prime minister said.
But he added: “I am sorry to say we expect that more regions will fall – at least temporarily – into higher levels than before.
“But, by using these tougher tiers, and by using rapid turnaround tests on an ever greater scale to drive R below 1 and keep it there, it should be possible for areas to move down the tiering scale to lower levels of restrictions.
“By maintaining the pressure on the virus, we can also enable people to see more of their family and friends over Christmas.”