Freedom Passes Show How a City’s Trial Could Unlock the U.K.
(Bloomberg) -- People who test negative for coronavirus could get a five-day freedom pass to attend big events or access public buildings, under plans being considered by public health experts running a trial program in England.
The idea is underpinned by rapid turnaround tests, which are being used in the northwest city of Liverpool to identify people carrying Covid-19 but without symptoms. More than 160,000 of the tests have been carried out in the voluntary program, and the next stage is to use the kits to enable a “smarter, safer” re-opening of the city, said Iain Buchan, an academic involved in running the project.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long voiced a desire to use mass testing to get life back to normal as the U.K. awaits the roll-out of a vaccine, and on Monday he spoke of “the prospect of fewer restrictions” if people test negative for coronavirus. Granting them more freedom could potentially help the economy recover faster after the pandemic triggered the worst slump in more than 300 years. But he’s so far given few details on how this could happen.
According to Buchan, a public health professor at the University of Liverpool, the city’s trial points the way. From next week, authorities will experiment with a “test-to-release” program that will allow key workers who have come into contact with a positive Covid-19 case to reduce the period they have to self-isolate, to seven days from the current rule of 14.
Under the plan, participants will take a test every day for a week after they are first reached by contact tracers, and if the test is negative every day they can leave self-isolation on the seventh day.
If successful, the strategy could be broadened to include more people in more scenarios, according to Buchan.
“The whole point of the pilot was to set up distribution channels and make sure the tests were accessible by communities -- we’ve done that, so next is to use tests to enable smarter, safer re-opening of the city,” Buchan said in an interview. “Unemployment and economic decline resulting from Covid restrictions are a big public health problem.”
Johnson has this week talked up Liverpool’s success, telling a television crew on Friday: “I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of what mass testing can do, but it’s definitely helped in Liverpool, it can help across the country.”
The premier’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, later told reporters all communities facing the toughest coronavirus restrictions when England’s lockdown ends next week will be able to undertake a 6-week program like Liverpool’s.
In Liverpool, experts are now looking at data from the pilot, which began on Nov. 6, to assess whether the so-called lateral flow tests being used are reliable and sensitive enough to give people more freedoms and open up the local economy. The kits are different to most tests used so far in the pandemic because they can process samples on site without laboratory equipment.
Under the Liverpool plan to link negative tests to freedom passes, people would get five days to access events and venues before they would need another test. The city has seen a sharp decline in coronavirus cases and will avoid being placed in the toughest virus tier next week -- but it is not yet clear to what extent mass testing has been a contributing factor, according to Buchan.
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