Coronavirus: do we still need Operation Moonshot?

As the Oxford vaccine posts promising results, the UK’s £100bn mass-testing plan is looking less essential

An NHS nurse carries out a Covid test at a drive-through testing centre.
Oxford vaccine posts promising trial results - potentially making mass testing redundant
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Coronavirus vaccine results are beginning to feel a bit like buses, with the long wait for news giving way to a recent flurry of announcements.

The latest promising results come from the Oxford University jab, which has raised hopes that it can protect those most vulnerable to Covid after showing “a strong immune response in adults in their 60s and 70s”, the BBC reports.

The UK has pre-ordered 100m doses, as well as 45m doses of two other effective vaccines, raising questions about the need for Operation Moonshot, an ambitious plan to roll out mass coronavirus testing across the UK.

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What stage is Moonshot at?

Operation Moonshot’s goal is to expand daily tesing from about 650,000 per day now to ten million a day by early next year.

The government last week granted access to rapid diagnostic testing for Covid-19 to 67 more areas in England. People in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol and parts of London will be able to request low-price tests, which deliver results in less than half an hour.

The eventual aim is to provide “mass testing of all homes in local areas or whole cities when prevalence rises”, says the British Medical Journal, including “testing high contact professions such as teachers every week” and people who “enter high risk settings, such as visitors to hospital and care homes”.

What’s the cost?

In early September, a leaked government report revealed that plans for mass testing would cost around £100bn. This is three-quarters of the total annual funding for to NHS England.

Eyebrows were raised at the project’s heft price tag, with Angela Raffle, honorary senior medical lecturer at the University of Bristol, tweeting that “embark[ing] on a screening programme without having carefully evaluated it first... [could] result is an expensive mess that does more harm than good”.

However, Boris Johnson said that “deploying these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved” could help the UK avoid further Covid restrictions.

So do we need it?

“What would be the point of testing the entire population of Britain once a week if the virus was being controlled by a vaccine,” asks The Spectator, especially at such a huge cost.

There are doubts about its effectiveness, too. Experts have compared the project to “building a Channel tunnel without asking civil engineers to look at the plans”, The Guardian says, claiming that “there is no evidence the plan will offer any benefit”.

One of the main complaints from public health experts is that the “effectiveness of the tests it uses is weak, and the programme itself has been structured without input from the body responsible for advising ministers on screening strategy”, the paper adds.

Scientists have also suggested that the plans are “unethical” as the tests could deliver around “400,000 false positives if 60 million Britons were screened in the run-up to Christmas”, The Times reports.

It would also deliver “incorrect negative tests [that] could lead to the spread of the virus by people who were falsely reassured and took fewer precautions, the paper adds.

In the meantime, the government has already placed orders for 100 million doses of the Oxford vaccine, with plans in place to roll it out to at-risk groups in December - if it receives regulatory approval.

Even then, however, the logistical challenge of producing and distributing such a large number of vaccinations will mean it may be several months before the majority of the population can be protected.

The World Health Organization has warned that a vaccine will not end the pandemic, and said that testing and social distancing will be needed for some time yet.

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