Everyone in England will be urged to take a coronavirus test twice a week as a new system of Covid passports is assessed for wide-scale use, under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to reopen the economy after lockdown.
Free test kits will be made available through local pharmacies, community centers and home delivery services, when the new regime goes live on April 9.
With most of the adult population now having received a vaccine, the government believes rapid testing of the whole population and a system of Covid status certification will help keep control over the pandemic as restrictions are eased.
Johnson is due to set out the details later on Monday, ahead of the next step in lifting curbs for businesses and citizens due on April 12.
“Massive efforts have been made by the British public to stop the spread of the virus,” Johnson said in a statement released by his office. “As we continue to make good progress on our vaccine program and with our road-map to cautiously easing restrictions underway, regular rapid testing is even more important to make sure those efforts are not wasted.”
The U.K. has suffered the highest death toll in Europe from the pandemic and is still reeling from the country’s deepest recession in 300 years.
A vaccination program that has rapidly outpaced the rest of Europe has seen 31.5 million people given at least one shot so far, and puts the U.K. in a good position to reopen even as nearby countries such as France are locking down again.
Under Johnson’s plans:
- International travel may resume, potentially from as early as May 17, with a new “traffic light” system coding countries as red, amber or green, based on their pandemic risks. The risk ratings will take account of a country’s vaccination program, infection rate, virus strains, and sequencing capacity
- Arrivals in the U.K. from green countries won’t need to isolate, but will have to take tests before departing and after arriving. Quarantine and isolation rules will apply to passengers entering the country from places on the red and amber lists
- A Covid-status certification system — often referred to as a Covid passport — will be developed over the coming months, which could allow riskier venues such as sports events, nightclubs and theaters to reopen
- Covid certificates, which could be paper-based or via a smart-phone app, will be tested at mass events including top soccer matches and other sporting occasions in the weeks ahead; pubs, shops and restaurants won’t need to use certification to reopen
- A review of social distancing will consider when families will be allowed to hug each other again, and whether Covid passports could see distancing guidelines lifted.
Many of the measures contained in Johnson’s plan will need to pass votes in Parliament. Johnson is likely to face battling demands from some of his own Conservative Party colleagues to lift the lockdown faster, while more than 70 members of Parliament have launched a campaign to oppose vaccine passports, citing concerns over the erosion of liberties.