A similar rollout is set to begin in Scotland in around ten days’ time, with all Scots to be offered two lateral flow tests a week once restrictions begin to ease from April 26.
But according to leaked emails seen by The Guardian, ministers in England are now “urgently” considering withdrawing the tests amid concerns over accuracy.
Ben Dyson, an adviser to UK health secretary Matt Hancock, said there was a “fairly urgent need for decisions” on “the point at which we stop offering asymptomatic testing”.
On the first day of the testing programme in England – April 9 – Mr Dyson said the accuracy of the tests could be as low as 2 per cent.
He wrote: “As of today, someone who gets a positive LFD result in (say) London has at best a 25 per cent chance of it being a true positive, but if it is a self-reported test potentially as low as 10 per cent (on an optimistic assumption about specificity) or as low as 2 per cent (on a more pessimistic assumption).”
Professor John Simpson, head of Public Health England’s public health advice, wrote: “We are a little concerned that this proposal does not provide the evidence needed to justify the extension of testing in the way proposed, does not consider alternative approaches to achieving the over-arching aim (of reducing community transmission) and does not provide a framework for evaluation that would make it possible to determine if the approach actually achieves what it intends.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social care said there were “no plans” to stop the testing programme.
“With around one in three people not showing symptoms of Covid-19, regular, rapid testing is an essential tool to control the spread of the virus as restrictions ease by picking up cases that would not otherwise have been detected,” they said.
National clinical director Jason Leitch said the testing rollout in Scotland was aimed at making people “a bit more sure” they don’t have Covid-19.
Regular lateral flow tests are already offered to healthcare staff, teachers and some older school pupils.
The first mass lateral flow testing in Scotland was offered to university students in November and December, ahead of returning home for the Christmas holidays.
Announcing the testing programme last week, Nicola Sturgeon said: “This more universal approach to asymptomatic testing will allow us to assess the impact that might have on further suppressing transmission.”
Prof Leitch said: “We've been pleased with how it's gone in schools with teachers and senior pupils, and we're anticipating that getting even better when they go back.”
He added: “It's not magic, it's not a single solution, but it just adds a layer of protection for you as you go out and about, whether it’s your journalistic business, your call centre business, or even going to the garden for a barbecue to see your family.
“It would just allow you to be a bit more sure that you don't have the virus.”