Mass testing of entire regions is being considered by ministers to help get the country out of lockdown, it has emerged, as Dominic Raab said restrictions could start to be eased in March.
The Foreign Secretary said that by the "early spring, hopefully March" some restrictions would be lifted "gradually" so the country could "get back to normal”.
He warned it would not be a “big bang” end to lockdown but a return to tiers depending on the level of Covid admissions in hospitals, death rates and hitting targets on vaccinating the over 50s and vulnerable by early spring.
The Telegraph understands mass testing could be used to swiftly move the worst-infected areas down the tiers. One idea under consideration is to send out home testing kits, known as lateral flow tests, to every household in an entire region so the population could be tested within a week.
By identifying those who have Covid, and in particular asymptomatic “silent spreaders,” and telling them to self-isolate, ministers hope the chain of transmission could be broken and infection rates could be quickly brought down.
One senior Government source said: “We are currently concentrating testing around critical workers and we are some way off looking at whether restrictions can be lifted. But when decisions are made about lifting restrictions we will look again at whether there would be a further role for mass testing on a wider scale.”
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown
Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure from his own backbenchers to explain his exit strategy from the current lockdown, having said it is still too early to say when restrictions will be lifted.
Senior Tory MPs have suggested most measures should be eased as soon as the elderly and most vulnerable have been vaccinated, which is on course to happen by mid-February.
Speaking on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Mr Raab said: “What we want to do is get out of these national lockdowns as soon as possible, the roadmap is that by early spring, hopefully by March, we’ll be in a position to make those decisions.”
“I think it’s right to say we won’t do it all in one big bang; as we phase out of the national lockdown, I think we’ll end up phasing through the tiered approach.
“We want to make sure that we can do it in a safe way but again, we’ve got to, at this point in time, really focus on protecting the NHS and rolling out the vaccine. If we do those two things, we get into a much better place by early spring.”
Advocates of the mass testing plan believe it could play a major role in getting life back to normal – including getting people back to work – once tens of millions of people have been vaccinated.
Last year mass testing was used in Liverpool to get the city out of the top tier of restrictions, though on that occasion people had to attend testing centres, whereas under the new plan the tests would be sent out in the post.
The effectiveness of lateral flow saliva tests has come into question over the past week, after a trial in Liverpool found they missed half of the positive cases detected using a standard PCR nasal swab.
However, ministers believe they are effective in identifying asymptomatic carriers who may not otherwise have been tested – and by being required to self-isolate as a result reduce the risk of further transmission of the virus.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said he expected lockdown to be eased gradually around spring and summer time.
He said: "It is not going to be the case that on Valentine's Day, with one bound, we are free. Equally, I don't think we will have to wait until the autumn, I think somewhere between those two.
"Subject, of course, to this uncertainty around new variants of coronavirus and it will be very important we don't see those taking off in a way that undermines the effectiveness of the vaccines we have."
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