Covid: Boris Johnson's Operation Moonshot sounds more like moonshine so Scottish Government is right to be cautious – Ian Swanson

Experts say Boris Johnson’s plan for mass coronavirus testing is ‘fundamentally flawed’

Monday, 14th September 2020, 4:45 pm
Boris Johnson likes his projects, like the Operation Moonshot plan for mass coronavirus testing, to be 'world-beating'
Boris Johnson likes his projects, like the Operation Moonshot plan for mass coronavirus testing, to be 'world-beating'

The rules have tightened again. No more than six people from two households can meet, indoors or out, anywhere in Scotland. And in many areas over in the west, any indoor visit to other households is banned.

With Covid cases rising across the UK, all four nations have taken similar measures. Most political leaders – and most of the public it seems – accept it is a sensible move to stop the virus getting out of control while efforts continue to find a vaccine.

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The increase in cases was perhaps inevitable as schools reopened and other activities started up again.

But Boris Johnson, ever eager to get everything back to normal, has taken the resurgence as a cue for another of his “fantastic” projects.

Operation Moonshot is a £100 billion plan for mass testing which aims to achieve ten million Covid-19 tests a day by the spring and provide almost instant results.

Read More

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Operation Moonshot: Boris Johnson’s coronavirus mass testing plan explained - and what experts say about the project

The plan includes DIY pregnancy-style test kits which give results in 15 minutes and “testing at the door” for large-scale events like football matches, theatre productions, concerts or conferences.

The Prime Minister is said to believe it is “our only hope for avoiding a second national lockdown before a vaccine”.

The trouble is the existing testing system is currently struggling to cope with a much smaller number of tests, with stories of people being directed to test centres hundreds of miles from their homes.

And the technology to produce the new tests Mr Johnson wants does not yet exist.

Nicola Sturgeon said last week the Scottish Government is “hooked in” to talks on Operation Moonshot, but a leaked document revealed at the weekend that experts have advised her against rushing to support the plan.

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, urged the Scottish Government to be cautious and sceptical and described the project as “pie in the sky”.

And Professor Stephen Reicher, of St Andrews University, who advises both the UK and Scottish Governments, said: “Quite frankly, Moonshot is a fantasy at the moment. It depends on testing technology that does not exist now.”

Instead Professor Reicher says the effort should be on “doing the simple things well” because that’s what will have most effect.

And there is scepticism about Mr Johnson’s plans at UK level too. One expert branded it “fundamentally flawed”. And another said: “These are plans from the world of management consultants and show complete ignorance of many essential basic principles of testing, public health, and screening. This is frankly dangerous.”

Mr Johnson likes everything he does to be “world-beating” and, sure enough, he said this project would mean testing “on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved”.

It is perhaps disturbing if success in this quest is the only hope of avoiding another full lockdown.

It is said the Scottish Government’s decision to get involved is simply to ensure Scotland does not miss out on a boost to testing capacity.

And it looks as if caution is the right approach.

Choosing to call it Operation Moonshot was presumably intended to reflect the ambitious and ground-breaking nature of the exercise.

But the experts’ comments suggest the likelihood is that Operation Moonshot will turn out to be moonshine.

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