‘Moonshot’ tests that missed half of infections cost £75m to fly in

Dominic Penna
·3-min read
Air freight is currently the only means that health officials have at their disposal to continue to upscale the Government’s community testing regime. - Chris Neill/Maverick Photography Limited
Air freight is currently the only means that health officials have at their disposal to continue to upscale the Government’s community testing regime. - Chris Neill/Maverick Photography Limited

The Department of Health and Social Care spent more than £75 million on transporting 'Moonshot' tests from China that could miss up to half of coronavirus cases, The Telegraph can reveal.

A total of £76.59 million has been spent on air freight alone for lateral flow tests since the announcement of ‘Operation Moonshot’, analysis shows. The proposed mass-testing scheme had initially intended to perform 10 million tests a day.

Air Charter Service, a global charter provider with its UK base in Surbiton, has been the beneficiary of £61.8 million of contracts that ran after the ‘Moonshot’ announcement in a bid to dramatically upscale the country’s testing capabilities.

A further £14.8 million in contracts went to Virgin Atlantic in order to meet what the Department called “specific, urgent need to transport test kits to the UK” from regions including Xiamen, a port city on China’s south coast.

Most recently, Virgin Atlantic was awarded £2.2 million for air freight services from the beginning of this month. The contract will run up until January 19.

Air freight is currently the only means that health officials have at their disposal to continue to upscale the Government’s community testing regime.

Contracts have been awarded outside of the usual process “because of public health risks presenting a genuine emergency”, according to documentation, and to prevent Britain being outbid for lateral flow tests by other countries if this is left too late.

Soldiers arrived in Liverpool in September to carry out the Moonshot mass testing programme - Chris Neill/Maverick Photography Limited
Soldiers arrived in Liverpool in September to carry out the Moonshot mass testing programme - Chris Neill/Maverick Photography Limited

“There was no time to run an accelerated procurement under the open, restricted or competitive procedures with negotiation that would secure services within the required timescales,” one contract reads.

Data from the mass testing pilot rolled out in Liverpool missed just over half (51.1 per cent) of asymptomatic infections, according to findings published in British Medical Journal last month.

The Department of Health insisted that the lateral flow tests used as part of ‘Moonshot’ - a tagline which has since been abandoned by officials, who now prefer the term “mass testing” - are accurate and reliable.

A letter from government lawyers seen by the British Medical Journal in October showed that ‘Moonshot’ has now been subsumed into the wider NHS Test and Trace scheme, which is being overseen by chief executive Dido Harding.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “Rising rates of infection in the UK and corresponding growth in testing demand created an urgent need for these new test kits to support the testing programme in the UK.

“Lateral Flow Tests are accurate, reliable and successfully identify those with Covid-19 who don’t show symptoms and could pass on the virus without realising.

“With up to a third of individuals with Covid-19 not displaying symptoms, rapid testing is a key part of the government’s Covid-19 Winter Plan to identify those with coronavirus earlier and stop the spread of the virus.”