By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain on Thursday said it was investing in trials of a 20 minute COVID-19 test, with a view to rolling out widespread, systematic testing to pick up outbreaks early, amid criticism over backlogs in its current testing system.
Health minister Matt Hancock has said he hopes mass testing using faster COVID-19 tests can be rolled out towards the end of the year, adding that they are key to restoring freedoms after months of COVID-19 restrictions.
"I want to solve the problem by having the next generation tests at a radically bigger scale. You can't do that on the current technology very easily," he told BBC television.
Asked when it would be available for everyone, he said: "Over the coming weeks and months ahead. We're starting the roll out today."
Britain is looking to develop tests which do not need to be read in a lab, giving results in a matter of minutes, rather than the current next-day target.
On Thursday, the health ministry said it would put 500 million pounds into trials of rapid COVID-19 tests and into population-testing for the disease.
The funding will be used to expand existing trials of saliva tests and a rapid 20-minute test in southern England.
A saliva test has been approved for use on an emergency basis in the United States after a trial on National Basketball Association players and staff, while Italy, Belgium and France are also trialling saliva tests.
A new, community trial in Salford, northwest England, will assess also the benefit of population-testing, under which people are regularly tested regardless of whether they have symptoms, so that any cases can be picked up before they have spread widely.
In some countries, such as France, people are encouraged to get tests when they are in any doubt as to whether they might have COVID-19, with or without symptoms.
However in England, official health service advice is only for citizens to get a COVID-19 test if they have symptoms, although more regular testing is available for certain professions, such as care workers.
However, the government has come in for criticism after some who tried to book tests were reportedly told to travel many miles as capacity is directed where the need is greatest.
"The time was right to think about scaling up testing to the wider community and asymptomatic testing over the summer when we were relatively COVID-secure," Alan McNally, Professor of Microbial Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Birmingham, told BBC radio.
"Ideally we would be far more advanced in our ability to handle, what we're already beginning to see, an increase in requirement for COVID testing."
People contacted by the health service's Test and Trace programme in England must self-isolate for 14 days if they have been a recent contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case, but they are not told to test unless they have symptoms. Similarly, travellers from certain countries must enter a 14-day quarantine.
The guidance to self-isolate rather than get a test is because a negative test cannot preclude the possibility of getting symptoms later in the quarantine, Hancock told Sky News.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Kate Holton and William Schomberg in London, Matthias Blamont in Paris and Emilio Parodi in Milan; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, William Maclean)