Health Secretary Matt Hancock has revealed plans to expand the size of a major testing scheme for the deadly COVID-19 virus to 150,000 people every fortnight.
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The Office for National Statistics’ Infection Survey aims to randomly test samples from the general population, helping the government to identify areas of emerging outbreaks and pre-emptively take action to prevent the virus’ spread.
It is different from the ongoing mass testing of people who display symptoms of the virus, in that it also tests asymptomatic individuals and people who are not necessarily infected.
The Survey, which has been in effect since May, has been the most accurate indicator of infection levels across of the country. Reports released every week by the ONS have been the primary data source that guide policy decisions and government restrictions.
Initially run as a pilot study conducted by the ONS and the University of Oxford in collaboration with the Department for Health and Social Care, the Survey invited 20,000 households to participate, with the objective of obtaining data from around half of them. Since the end of May, approximately 5,000 additional households have been included in the Survey per week, allowing the government to test around 28,000 per fortnight.
The ramped-up testing plan will allow the ONS to test more extensively and assess the number of infections as well as other key health indicators at a much more granular level.
The data from this survey is useful on several fronts. First, it helps health experts determine the growth rate of the virus as well as the weekly reproduction number, both of which help to understand whether the number of infections is increasing or decreasing. Next, it provides scientists with information on the number of people who have developed antibodies to the virus, allowing them to determine true infection rates. Finally, it also analyses the social and demographic makeup of the people who are infected, which helps to inform government decision making.
The latest data from the Survey indicate that one in 1,900 people, or a total of 238,000 are currently infected, showing that the number of infections is slightly levelling off.
The ramped-up Survey plan is expected to roll out some time in October, the start of the winter season when a second surge of the virus is expected. Participants will need to take routine nose or throat swabs to check if they have been infected or not.
The new expansion plan will extend its reach beyond England to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, covering 400,000 people overall. The Health Secretary added that the new ONS Survey would help the government be “more accurate and more localised” in its COVID-19 response.