Random household testing for coronavirus is to be increased - here's how it will work

By Sarah Wilson
Thursday, 20th August 2020, 12:48 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th August 2020, 12:48 pm
The testing regime is intended to get a better idea of the spread of infection (Photo: Shutterstock)
The testing regime is intended to get a better idea of the spread of infection (Photo: Shutterstock)

A plan to significantly increase testing for coronavirus as part of a monitoring programme intended to get a better idea of the spread of infection has been announced.

The Office for National Statistics' (ONS) Infection Survey will see more people around the country tested for coronavirus - around 150,000 every two weeks.

The survey is separate from the mass testing programme, designed to mass diagnose people with symptoms. Instead, a representative sample of the the population will be tested for the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms.

What is the point of the survey?

The survey is being introduced because many cases of coronavirus can be asymptomatic. Therefore, the diagnostic testing programme (where people with symptoms get tested) is likely underestimating the true scale and spread of coronavirus infections.

Data will also be gathered in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of an expansion of the programme.

The results will not only help experts determine the weekly reproduction (R) number, but also provide important demographic information on the characteristics of the people and households who have coronavirus.

Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK's National Statistician, said that the survey would be the biggest of its kind in this country. He told the BBC, "Vigilance is key to containing this pandemic and the extra data on the spread of infections and antibodies at local level will be invaluable to the planning of effective local responses."

More rapid tests required

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has called for more rapid turnaround times in testing for the public.

As it stands, most tests have to be sent off to labs to be processed, meaning people wait a day or longer for their results. The government is assessing the effectiveness and accuracy of new kinds of tests which may be able to deliver results on the spot.

Hancock said that this was a "huge priority" for the UK government as it could make it easier to potentially reduce quarantine restrictions for returning travellers, as well as reopening parts of the economy.

He was, however, unable to give a time frame as to when these tests may be implemented, as they haven't yet been proven to work.