Mass testing in Liverpool raises hopes for a normal Christmas, but Leeds is not set to follow suite

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Liverpool enters its second week of Britain’s first city wide mass testing pilot and officials remain optimistic about its potential, but it is still unclear whether mass testing is on the cards for Leeds. 

Matthew Ashton, Director of Public Health for Liverpool has indicted strong engagement from Liverpool’s residents, telling BBC radio 4 that the first day of testing saw ‘really good numbers and lots of interest’. 

The programme offers testing to all residents even those without symptoms. This means people who have been infected but are not yet displaying symptoms can be identified and can begin self-isolating, Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson hopes this ‘means that we can break the chain of infection’. 

Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health, along with four other public health experts have raised doubt about the effectiveness of this method. In a letter to Liverpool MPs writing: ‘searching for symptomless yet infectious people is like searching for needles that appear transiently in haystacks’, raising concerns about the ‘harmful diversion of resources and public money’.  

Certainly, the rest of the UK is watching, Hancock has offered support with mass testing to all local councils across the UK, 67 have already signed up. 

Leeds however has yet to join the list, a spokesperson for Leeds City Council has said: 

We are currently waiting to see how effective the national pilots are, in hope that they will answer some of our key concerns around:

  • The quality and sensitivity of the tests
  • The implications of false positives and false negative results
  • The impact on workforces and services
  • How tests will be managed and link with NHS Test and Trace and our local tracing and support team.
  • How mass testing will be linked to financial and broader support to self-isolate’

Leeds residents have expressed similar apprehension. Madi, Political Communication’s Student at the UoL said: 

 ‘I understand why Liverpool and Manchester are doing it as it will help us truly understand the rate of infection and how many people truly have it/spread it. But I don’t see the benefit of doing it in any more cities. It could be a waste of tests and money.’ 

Sir John Bell from the University of Oxford has expressed a necessity for such caution, claiming that mass testing ‘may well keep us out of trouble’ but it is ‘very important we don’t over-hype’.

The pilot’s use of ‘Lateral Flow Tests’, which can detect the virus from a nose or throat swab within 30 minutes is generating doubt in the programme. 

Whilst the department of Health and Social Care insist: ‘Lateral Flow Tests are accurate and sensitive enough to be used in the community, including for asymptomatic people,’ other experts have raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of these tests. 

Professor Jon Deeks, an expert in assessing Covid-19 tests, is among those expressing concern, pointing to trials that have shown detection rates as low as 58% and 73%.

‘The DHSC data show that up to half of the Covid cases may be missed by the test, and it may give more false positives than true positives when used in mass screening’, Deeks claims, expressing serious concern as to how effectively the limits of this test have been communicated to the public.

Oisín, 20, Biology student at the University of Leeds, said: ‘I have no knowledge of the tests reliability’.

The DHSE acknowledges the overall sensitivity of the test comes in at 76.8% but insists that for those with a high viral load, the test has a 95% detection rate.  

Mayor of Liverpool tweet

So far, of the 1,390 confirmed Covid cases to have been found in the pilot’s first week, 11.9% were detected using Lateral Flow kits, according to Liverpool City Council, ‘1 in 5… will be false positive’ and will be followed up with further tests for confirmation. 

Despite these concerns, confidence remains high, around 90,000 people have been tested so far and Liverpool’s Mayor has expressed hope that the pilot could allow for ‘a semblance of a normal Christmas here in Liverpool’.  

As Leeds awaits the results of the pilot, opinions appear mixed, but some do share this optimism.   

Casey, 22, MA student at the University of Leeds writes: ‘As I work in the service industry it would be good to know I could get regularly tested without having to fear mounting costs’ 

Gemma, 44, from Harehills, expressed relief at the idea of mass testing, stating: ‘I could make sure my kids, mum, and dad were okay, so it would stop me worrying so much’

Liverpool’s pilot was initially set to last for a period of two weeks.

Image Credit: BBC