DR JENNY HARRIES: If we want back to normal – regular tests can help

We all want a return to normality… regular Covid tests can help us achieve that, writes UKHSA chief executive Dr JENNY HARRIES

The new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) launched last week with the unique mission to protect the nation’s health, both from existing hazards – such as hepatitis or radiation risks – but also from external and emerging threats.

As its first priority, it will continue the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Regular, rapid testing means we are finding cases of the virus that we wouldn’t otherwise detect, which prevents transmission to families, friends and communities – and which could ultimately save lives.

Around one in three people experiences no symptoms when they contract the virus and by getting tested regularly people will rapidly break chains of transmission that could begin unwittingly. 

An LFD check is the testing equivalent of a Formula 1 pit stop, writes Dr Jenny Harries (above)

Twice-weekly testing using lateral flow devices, commonly known as LFDs, has already protected millions of people who need to leave home for work, including frontline NHS workers, care home staff and residents, and schoolchildren and their families.

Regular testing in the months ahead can help us all get back to normal, and from this Friday we will make twice-weekly LFD testing available to every person in England.

An LFD is the testing equivalent of a Formula 1 pit stop. With a rapid turnaround time of 30 minutes for a result, these swab tests can be done from the comfort of a living room and are capable of quickly giving a snap verdict on whether someone is or isn’t likely to be infectious.

Just like an experienced mechanic, people get quicker at doing the test, and get better results, the more frequently they carry them out.

If we are going to reclaim our lost freedoms, we must ensure we can withstand attacks from Covid variants, writes Dr Jenny Harries

Vaccines are tipping the scales in our favour but as cases, deaths and hospitalisation charts continue to fall, the importance of our testing and tracing capabilities grows. 

An effective testing and tracing system is our radar for spotting new outbreaks and suppressing them and for watching out for new variants. The new variant in Kent, which rapidly increased cases across the country, is a stark reminder that viruses are shapeshifters and they mutate all the time.

If we are going to reclaim our lost freedoms for the long term, we must ensure we can withstand expected but unpredictable attacks in the form of variants of the virus.

That will require us to use the massive testing capacity to discover where variants of concern are and respond to them swiftly. Our diagnostics system is ready for testing on a level that matches the vaccination rollout, both in scope and ambition. The UK is now a testing juggernaut.

At the most recent count we have been testing over a million people a day, genome sequencing 32,000 tests in a week, and we have traced and contacted 3.2million who have tested positive in the past year, and a further six million of their contacts.

Regular testing is a way we can all help to bring about the return of much that has been missing in all of our lives and I have every confidence people will continue to give their selfless support in this next stage, just as they have throughout this pandemic.

  •  Dr Jenny Harries is chief executive of the UKHSA.

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