‘Operation Moonshot’: doubts over UK’s Covid test ambitions after trial scaled back

Fresh doubts have been raised over “Operation Moonshot”, the government’s £100bn testing plan, after a pilot to regularly test a quarter of a million people was paused then significantly scaled back.

The trial, in Salford in Greater Manchester, had been heralded as the first step in a mass-testing mission which Boris Johnson said “would allow people to lead more normal lives, without the need for social distancing”.

All 254,000 residents were to eventually take regular saliva tests – a scientific breakthrough Johnson said would turn round results “in 90 or even 20 minutes”.

But six weeks after the pilot began, it was paused last week and on Tuesday the government admitted it would now be smaller in scale and focused on “high-risk environments and groups”.

Regular testing would only be offered to select residents “in some areas of high-density housing”, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

At its launch in early September, the government promised a pilot with up to 250 tests a day that would be rapidly scaled up to cover the whole area, with regular testing at venues across the city.

The Salford pilot would test people “in indoor and outdoor venues”, meaning “workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative that morning and allow them to behave in a way that was normal before Covid”, the prime minister said.

But sources said the pilot scheme was struggling to persuade even 250 Salfordians to provide saliva samples. An NHS official also admitted earlier this month that more progress needed to be made because the target was not being met.

Addressing health secretary Matt Hancock in parliament on Tuesday, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, said: “Salford was to be one of the pilot areas testing this Moonshot programme. However, my local council confirmed to me this morning that some time ago now they had asked the Department for Health to share the clinical validity data behind this new technology.

“To date, this query remains unanswered and until this morning Salford city council had been told to pause the programme – so can the secretary confirm his current plans for the development of mass testing?”

Hancock did not respond to her but the Guardian understands that shortly before she stood up in parliament, Salford council was told that the pilot’s pause was reversed.

A DHSC spokeswoman said the project was ongoing. “The pilot is focusing on testing in high-risk environments and groups to prevent and manage outbreaks, and regular testing will continue to be offered to residents in Salford in some areas of high-density housing. The no-swab Optigene LAMP test used in the Salford pilot is ongoing and has already proven to be effective.”

Announcing the Salford pilot on 3 September, the DHSC said it was part of a £500m project trialling next-generation testing technology and increased testing capacity.

Paul Dennett, the directly elected mayor of Salford, said he was told by council officers this week that its part in Operation Moonshot had been paused due to a lack of clarity over the accuracy of the saliva testing system.

“Today, we’ve received new correspondence from the DHSC, after chasing a written update for several weeks, ‘un-pausing’ the community testing project with an emphasis on more targeted testing towards high-risk individuals and communities – as opposed to whole city ‘mass’ community testing being rolled out after a few initial weeks of concept testing.

“We are reviewing the new correspondence … and will come to a conclusion soon, especially given the urgent need to update our residents in the city.”

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