Regular Covid testing will result in a ‘public health disaster’ with thousands forced needlessly to self-isolate, an academic has warned.
Officials hope the multi-billion-pound scheme, under which everyone in England will be invited to take two free tests a week, will help to ease the country out of lockdown safely.
The Prime Minister insisted it will ‘stop outbreaks in their tracks’ and is necessary to ensure that the sacrifices made in recent months ‘are not wasted’.
But Allyson Pollock, a professor of public health at Newcastle University, warned the rollout of mass testing is ‘going to do more harm than good’. Branding it a ‘scandalous waste of money’, she said regular testing when cases were low would result in more false positives than actual cases, forcing people to self-isolate unnecessarily.
Her argument was backed up by a review of all studies into lateral flow tests – the type that would be used – which suggests the country is already at the level where there may be more false than true positives.
‘The Government is rolling this out without any good evidence of the cost, the harms or the benefits,’ Professor Pollock told LBC radio.
‘Lateral flow tests are a problem because they miss people. Cases are falling to rock bottom now – the majority of cases will be false positives and that will result in people having to isolate unnecessarily.’
She added: ‘It’s giving a lot of money to commercial companies where the tests have not been evaluated and piloted in proper public health settings. This is a public health disaster.’
Government experts are satisfied the DIY swabs, widely used by schools, care homes and the NHS, are a key tool in reopening society.
The tests are said to have identified 120,000 cases that might not otherwise have been picked up.
From Friday, people will be able to request packs of test kits for home use to collect from a pharmacy, or be tested at council-run sites or in workplace schemes.
Taking 15 to 30 minutes to produce a result, they are faster, cheaper and easier to use than the ‘gold standard’ PCR (polymerase chain reaction) laboratory tests.
Ministers have agreed anyone testing positive will be offered a PCR test to confirm the result. But critics fear LFTs are not sensitive enough to be relied on, particularly in detecting the asymptomatic cases that make the virus so difficult to control.
Last month, a major review of 64 studies found that the rapid antigen tests correctly identified an average of 72 per cent of infected people, falling to 58 per cent of asymptomatic cases.
Expensive business: Mass testing could cost the country untold billions
When infection rates were low in the community, the tests picked up far more ‘false positives’ than positive samples.
Speaking last month, Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘One of the issues which should have been picked up is these tests work a lot less well in people who are asymptomatic.’ He described using the tests every week on the entire population as ‘beyond reckless’.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to Test and Trace, said ‘the risk of false positives is extremely low – less than one in 1,000’.
Boris Johnson told the No 10 briefing last night testing ‘will be a great advantage to us all’.
This perverse plan will spark fear-mongering and anxiety
COMMENTARY by Dr John Lee
The Government’s announcement yesterday of twice-weekly testing for everybody in the country who wants it could hardly be more perverse. It flies in the face of both good public health policy and official assurances about the most effective way to combat the virus.
Just as normality appears to beckon, the goalposts have been moved again.
This colossal exercise will cost untold billions and lead to new bouts of fear-mongering and anxiety. It will do nothing for Britain’s already-battered public finances, with national debt and annual deficit already at record peacetime levels because of ministers’ financially cavalier responses to Covid.
Predictably, the Government are remaining tight-lipped about the cost of the new testing regime. But at, say, a low Government price of £5 per PCR test, and even if only 25million people test twice a week, the cost would easily soar above £1billion per month.
Such financial profligacy might not matter if such mass testing were proven to be effective against the virus. Instead, I am far from alone in fearing it will do nothing of the sort.
No test is 100 per cent reliable. The more tests conducted, the greater the number of errors.
As health officials have admitted, less than 0.1 per cent of these lateral flow tests is thought to produce a ‘false positive’ result, wrongly indicating that a patient has contracted the disease.
The Government’s announcement yesterday of twice-weekly testing for everybody in the country who wants it could hardly be more perverse
That may sound like a tiny fraction, but it means that for every million people tested there will be almost 1,000 false positives.
Since the Government wants the entire population to be tested twice a week, that implies a false positive rate of around 120,000 people every week – all people being wrongly told that they have the virus.
Think of the implications. That is a population the size of a large city, every month, being compelled by law to go into self-isolation when they are not even infected.
From there, they are expected to order a more reliable – and far more expensive – PCR test, which will confirm that they are not infected. By this time, they have pointlessly wasted time at home, missing out time with family, earning money in a job or exercising. The human cost will only soar.
And in truth, the total of false positives could be even higher. A study last year by Oxford University and Porton Down put the false positive rate at between 0.32 per cent and 0.39 per cent, which could mean almost half a million people per week being mistakenly required to shield if the whole country was testing. Whatever the final tally of false positives, these erroneous infection rates will be a health disaster, feeding an incorrect belief that vaccines are not working and the country at large remains in mortal danger. It will be catnip to those over-cautious voices on the Government’s Sage committee – at least one of them a Communist party member – who believe that lockdowns, masks, social distancing and other illiberal, authoritarian regulations are to become our new way of life, perhaps forever.
The Government insists that this mighty new show of testing is essential to catch ‘asymptomatic’ cases: that is, infected people who show no symptoms.
But this is yet another absurdity. If you have no symptoms, you are not personally at any risk. And just as importantly, despite repeated claims to the contrary, there is no credible scientific evidence that asymptomatic people are a significant risk for transmitting the disease to others.
One thing seems all too clear from yesterday’s announcement. We are all going to pay far too high a price for this expensive and ill-conceived scheme.
- Dr John Lee is a former professor of pathology and NHS consultant pathologist