Scientists want UK city to lift lockdown completely to see what happens

Shoppers in Southampton after restrictions were lifted on non-essential stores: Alamy Live News
Shoppers in Southampton after restrictions were lifted on non-essential stores: Alamy Live News

Scientists have proposed lifting lockdown completely in a UK city about the size of Southampton to see if coronavirus can be controlled through the weekly testing of residents.

A demonstration study is needed on a “medium-sized city” of around 250,000 people to see if regular testing and local quarantines could tackle Covid-19 outbreaks, according to a paper published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

“It is a deep mystery to me why this idea has not gained traction,” said Julian Peto, professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who co-authored the paper with 10 other experts.

The group argued new saliva tests could make it possible to conduct mass weekly testing – with a full household quarantine imposed on anyone that tests positive.

Professor Peto told The Times that people forced to quarantine under the system “would be perfectly happy to be locked down they would know they were infected”, adding: “If we test regularly, we could completely stop transmission.”

The researchers suggest large-scale testing could be done through examining saliva samples – a technique called RT-LAMP testing, which they said is cheaper and less invasive than nasal or throat swab tests.

The authors of the new paper said: “Contact tracing and mobile phone apps can have a large additional effect and would be even more effective within a population whose weekly test results are already available online.”

They added: “Whether the combined effect would control the epidemic can only be determined by a demonstration study in which a whole city is tested weekly and ends lockdown.”

There is no suggestion Southampton is ready to begin such a post-lockdown demonstration – only that the population of the south coast city (around 250,000) would make it appropriate.

Coincidentally, a trial of a coronavirus saliva test is due to be launched in Southampton this week – with more than 14,000 people recruited for a project led by Southampton City Council, the University of Southampton and the NHS.

The new test only requires an individual to spit into a sample pot to be tested for current Covid-19 infection.

However, not all scientists are convinced saliva tests would allow for a whole city to be tested weekly.

Liam Smeeth, a colleague of Professor Peto at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, described the idea as “ambitious to the point of being impractical”.

Scientists at the Earlham Institute have previously proposed using Norwich to test the population of a city for Covid-19 on a weekly basis.

Professor Neil Hall, director of the research facility, argued regular widespread community testing could help the country overcome the need for a national lockdown.

“We’re hoping this would be something that becomes part of the strategy as I think it’s one way that we could help get out of lockdown,” he said.

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