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Boris Johnson has said hundreds of thousands of rapid lateral flow coronavirus swab tests are being sent to local authorities across England.
Addressing the nation from Downing Street on Monday, the prime minister spoke about the success of the pilot mass testing trial in Liverpool, which in part uses the rapid tests, and also hailed the vaccine breakthrough reported by Pfizer.
He also warned that while mass testing and progress on vaccines are both “vital arrows in our epidemiological quiver”, they are no substitute for the current national lockdown restrictions.
“Irrespective of whether there is a vaccine on the way or not,” he said, “we must continue to do everything possible right now to bring the R down, and that's why we hope and believe that mass testing will help.
“Our first pilot began in Liverpool on Friday in partnership with Liverpool City Council.
“We've tested thousands of people there but there's still a lot more to do, so please if you are in Liverpool get yourself along to a testing centre, there are 19 at the moment, with more still to come and the more people get tested, the better we can protect that great city and drive the disease down in Liverpool.
“We must get through this to 2 December when these (national lockdown) measures expire, and we plan to move forward with a tiered approach.”
Earlier, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson said over 23,000 people in Liverpool had been tested for COVID-19 since the city-wide operation began last Friday.
Anderson tweeted that 23,170 people had been tested in just three days.
It is hoped the scheme could see 500,000 people, the population of Liverpool, tested even if they don’t have symptoms, so that asymptomatic people will know to isolate.
Anderson tweeted that of the 23,170 people tested, just 0.7% were positive.
Since noon on Friday, members of the military have been helping NHS staff to administer a combination of swab tests and the new lateral flow tests.
The new tests place a swab of the nose or throat on a test device and the results are displayed within 15 to 30 minutes.
Brigadier Joe Fossey of the Royal Engineering Corps, who joined Boris Johnson alongside deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, demonstrated how the rapid lateral flow coronavirus swab tests work.
Holding up a sample test, which are now intended to be sent to boroughs across the country, he said: “These are the tests that we are using in Liverpool.
“They are very simple to use. You will be in an enclosed booth. All COVID controls will be in place. You put the swab in your mouth and then in your nose and give it back to the soldier.
“It returns results within the hour without the need to send to a lab. You will receive email or text with result.”
The prime minister said that when the Pfizer vaccine is approved, the UK is “in front of the international pack” and will be “ready to start using it”.
He said: “Earlier this year the UK government ordered 40m doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough for about a third of the population, since you need two doses each.
“That puts us towards the front of the international pack on a per capita basis. I should add that we've ordered over 300 million doses from five other vaccine candidates as well.”
“If the Pfizer vaccine passes all the rigorous safety checks and is proved to be effective then we will begin a UK-wide NHS-led programme of vaccine distribution.”
Pfizer and German partner BioNTech said earlier on Monday that their vaccine candidate had been more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in a trial of over 43,000 participants.
The US company and its partner BioNTech said there ate no serious side-effects reported.
Regulators have said they would approve a vaccine with just a 50% effectiveness rate – protecting half of those who get it.
The company is now applying for emergency permission to use the vaccine by the end of the month.
Watch: Could this pilot testing programme in Liverpool be the blueprint for an exit strategy from COVID-19?