Mass testing coronavirus is not accurate, health minister warns

Mass testing for the coronavirus is not an accurate way to screen the whole population, health minister Lord Bethell warns

  • Lord Bethell wrote that asymptomatic testing could give ‘false reassurance’ 
  • Government previously announced expansion of asymptomatic mass testing 
  • Lord Bethell wrote to a constituent to say it was not an accurate way to screen   
  • He said only people with Covid-19 symptoms should get tested for the virus 

Mass testing is not an accurate way to screen the whole population, a health minister has admitted.

Lord Bethell, minister for innovation at the Department of Health, said that widespread asymptomatic testing could give ‘false reassurance’.

The Government has pinned its hopes on asymptomatic mass testing. In September Boris Johnson announced a plan to carry out ten million tests a day, called Operation Moonshot.

And only this week, the Government announced the expansion of asymptomatic mass testing and also said it would bring in testing in schools.

Lord Bethell (pictured), minister for innovation at the Department of Health, said that widespread asymptomatic testing could give ‘false reassurance’

But Lord Bethell wrote to a constituent saying that ‘swab-testing people with no symptoms is not an accurate way of screening the general population, as there is a real risk of giving false reassurance’. 

In the letter, seen by the British Medical Journal, he added: ‘Widespread asymptomatic testing could undermine the value of testing, as there is a risk of giving misleading results. Rather, only people with Covid-19 symptoms should get tested.’

Around one in three individuals with Covid do not display symptoms so can infect people unknowingly. Most mass testing uses rapid lateral flow tests that do not need to be sent to a laboratory. But this is less accurate than PCR (poly-merase chain reaction) swab tests.

Lord Bethell wrote to a constituent saying that ‘swab-testing people with no symptoms is not an accurate way of screening the general population, as there is a real risk of giving false reassurance’. Pictured, a rapid coronavirus test

Ministers hope that broadening testing to identify those showing no symptoms will enable positive cases to be found more quickly and help break chains of transmission. 

A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘The minister’s letter was in reply to a specific question about “blanket PCR testing” and it remains the case that PCR testing is prioritised for symptomatic testing.’

Ministers hope that broadening testing for those showing no symptoms will see positive cases found more quickly and help to break the chains of transmission. 

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