Boris Johnson is to unveil a plan for routine, universal Covid-19 tests as a means to ease England out of lockdown, as the government faced a renewed backlash over the idea of app-based “passports” to permit people entry into crowded places and events.

Six months after Johnson unveiled plans for “Operation Moonshot”, a £100bn mass testing scheme that never delivered on its stated aim of preventing another lockdown, all people in England will be offered two Covid tests a week from Friday.

The prime minister is to announce the rollout of the lateral flow tests at a press conference on Monday afternoon, at which he will also outline a programme of trial events for mass gatherings, as well as proposals for potentially restarting foreign travel.

The testing scheme, involving kits for use at home or at test centres, workplaces and schools, is billed as a means to limit any continued community transmission of the virus, in parallel with the vaccination programme, and as a way to track outbreaks of potentially vaccine-resistant Covid variants.

The test-and-trace phone app will also be updated so that when pubs and other hospitality venues reopen everyone in a group will have to register, not just the lead person, with those who test positive asked to share other places they have visited.

Some scientists have expressed scepticism at the plan, noting both the possibility of false negatives with lateral flow tests, and the need for better support for people to self-isolate if they do test positive.

Civil liberties groups and many MPs will also be wary if the new testing system potentially feeds into a regime of Covid certificates, which would use recent tests, vaccination or the presence of antibodies to the virus to determine entry to pubs or mass events. Sometimes also called “Covid passports”, these would be purely for domestic use, and would be distinct from a vaccination record to allow foreign travel.

Step 1, part 1

In effect from 8 March, all pupils and college students returned fully. Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor. 

Step 1, part 2

In effect from 29 March, outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens. Outdoor sport for children and adults allowed. The official stay at home order ends, but people will be encouraged to stay local. People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2

The official outline plan states that the next steps will rely on data, and the dates given mean “no earlier than”. In step two, there will be a reopening of non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and public buildings such as libraries and museums. Most outdoor venues can open, including pubs and restaurants but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.

Also reopening will be settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing. Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open but again people can only go alone or with their own household. Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities, but only for one household. Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.

Step 3

Again with the caveat “no earlier than 17 May”, depending on data, vaccination levels and current transmission rates.

Step 3 entails that most mixing rules are lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens. Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households. Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.

For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer. Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a separate review.

Step 4

No earlier than 21 June, all legal limits will be removed on mixing, and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.

Peter Walker Political correspondent

Over the weekend, the government unveiled plans for nine pilot events, ranging from football matches and a snooker tournament to comedy and business gatherings, to try out the practicalities of Covid certificates, whether using paper or via an app.

Such documents would allow people entry to events if they had been vaccinated, or could show they had recently tested negative for Covid or had antibodies to the virus.

But the day after the pilot events were announced, five of the nine venues insisted they were not taking part in a Covid certification trial, with one saying it had received a “massive backlash” after the government announcement.

woman takes the lateral flow test on in Portsmouth, England.

The scheme will run in parallel with the vaccination programme, and as a way to track outbreaks of potentially vaccine-resistant Covid variants. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Liverpool city council, where four of the events are planned, said these would instead be general tests of how such venues could reopen, including social distancing, ventilation and test-on-entry systems, but were not designed to feed into a certificate trial.

Paul Blair, a co-owner of the Hot Water Comedy Club in the city, which is organising an event on 16 April, said the venue had received abuse on social media and emails accusing it of being part of a “medical apartheid”.

Johnson has suggested businesses would welcome the option to use Covid passport schemes, but he faces a battle to win parliamentary support for the idea. Last week more than 70 MPs, including 40 Conservatives, announced they would oppose the idea.

One option for the government would be to use such certificates for mass events such as sports and for places such as theatres, but not for access to pubs and bars.

The government has only recently gone public about the plans for such certificates, having previously discounted the idea. However, documents seen by the Guardian show research commissioned for the NHS’s test-and-trace system reported as early as December on ways for Covid passports to operate.

The documents include mock-ups of possible app-based passports, and research about possible public attitudes towards using these as a condition of entry to not just events such as football matches or to pubs, but also for family gatherings such as weddings.

In a quote released to promote the new testing system, Johnson hailed the progress with vaccination, and said tests were now “even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted”.

He said: “That’s why we’re now rolling out free rapid tests to everyone across England – helping us to stop outbreaks in their tracks, so we can get back to seeing the people we love and doing the things we enjoy.”

Test protocols in the other UK nations are organised by the devolved governments.

A member of staff processes a Covid-19 lateral flow test in the sports hall of Wilberforce college in Hull.

A member of staff processes a Covid-19 lateral flow test in the sports hall of Wilberforce college in Hull. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Free testing is already available to frontline NHS workers, care home staff and residents, and schoolchildren and their families. As part of the rollout to the whole population people will be able to order tests to be delivered to their home and visit participating pharmacies to collect boxes of seven.

Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the Spi-B subcommittee of Sage that advises on behavioural science, said testing by itself was “no solution”, noting a rate of false negatives for self-administered lateral flow tests of up to 50%, as well as a lack of contact tracing or support for those self-isolating.

He said: “All in all, the government keeps on seeking quick fixes based on one intervention. What they consistently fail to do is to build a system in which all the parts work together to contain the virus.”

John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussexand also a member of Spi-B – but speaking in a personal capacity – said: “Is twice-weekly testing going to be accompanied by the required support for self-isolation, which currently is insufficient? If not, increased testing helps with the data but not with the practicalities of dealing with the virus.”

Labour said it backed the mass testing plan, but expressed similar worries. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “To break transmission chains and suppress infections, testing must go hand in hand with community public health-led contact tracing to find cases and must be backed up by decent financial support so sick people can isolate.”

This content first appear on the guardian

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