Catherine McCombs waits in the queue at Liverpool Tennis Centre in Wavertree on the first day of voluntary mass testing for Covid-19 in the city © Colin McPherson/FT

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With a job as a teaching assistant starting next week, Catherine McCombs was near the front of the line in Liverpool on Friday for the start of the UK’s first citywide blanket coronavirus testing programme.

The northern port is attempting to test its entire population of 500,000 and everyone who works there in the next 10 days, and again over the following three weeks if the pilot is extended, as the government tries to find an alternative to lockdowns to control the pandemic.

“This is to help our city get back to normal. You have got to do your bit,” said Ms McCombs. After an hour’s wait she entered the Liverpool Tennis Centre to receive a new type of rapid test kit from the soldiers conducting proceedings. 

Two hours later she received her negative result. “I am very happy. It is onwards and upwards now,” she said.

Anecdotal reports indicated several thousand people went to six sites across the city on Friday. They could either make appointments or just turn up, suggesting the appeal to participate had been heard. The council could not provide definite numbers.

Armed forces in PPE on duty at the Wavertree testing centre on Friday. Around 2,000 military personnel are expected to facilitate the exercise © Colin McPherson/FT

Over the coming days, it is expected that 2,000 troops will set up scores of centres including mobile units, open 12 hours a day. They include one at Anfield stadium, home of Liverpool Football Club. Jurgen Klopp, the manager, was among those urging people to get tested in a big social media campaign.

The government’s so-called “moonshot” campaign relies on a new Lateral Flow Test (LFT), a simple self-swab test which promises results in under an hour.

The city has daily capacity for 50,000-60,000 LFTs and 17,500 old-style PCR tests, which need a lab to be processed, as well as 5,000 home testing kits.

Hospitals and care homes, schools, universities and workplaces will also be helped to conduct test on their sites. Liverpool recently had the highest infection rate in the country and 94 people died from coronavirus over the past week. Hospital intensive care units were almost full.

Matt Ashton, Liverpool’s director of public health, urged everyone to get tested since around 80 per cent of infected people are asymptomatic. Field testing of LTFs found that there were hardly any false negatives and only one in 1,000 false positives, he said. 

Anyone testing positive is being offered a more reliable PCR test to confirm it. “We want to get cases down from the current 330 per 100,000 to zero if possible,” he told the Financial Times.

Students Sophie Nelson, left, and Hope Anderson © Colin McPherson/FT

Students Hope Anderson, 20, and Sophie Nelson, 19, jogging in a park near the city centre, said they would get tested. “It is the right thing to do,” Ms Anderson said. “So many people are asymptomatic and have no idea if they are spreading it.” She believed most of the city’s 50,000 students would be tested. 

Louise Kenny, pro vice-chancellor at Liverpool university, said one reason the city was chosen was its tradition of co-operating with public health authorities. The take up of MMR vaccine in the city is around 95 per cent, one of the highest in the UK.

She believed the testing would be effective if 75 per cent of people participated. “Mass testing can break the chain of infection and cases fall rapidly.” she said.

Some academics disagree. In a letter sent to Liverpool’s MPs, half a dozen academics said the testing scheme was a waste of public money: “Searching for symptomless yet infectious people is like searching for needles that appear transiently in haystacks.” Signatories included Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, and Angela Raffle, a consultant in public health based in Bristol.

A member of the public with Covid-19 symptoms undergoes a test at Wavertree © Colin McPherson/FT

Frank McKenna, of business network Downtown, said many workers and businesses would be reluctant to step forward. “The problem is, in a city like Liverpool, you do have a lot of freelance workers with two or three jobs. If they test positive and have to self isolate there is no financial support for them. People like Jurgen Klopp and me can afford to stay home but many can’t.”

He also said some companies would instruct workers not to get tested for fear of losing them for two weeks. 

John Ashton, former regional director of public health for the north-west, agreed that the £500 a month payment for those without sick pay was not enough. He added that public mistrust of the government would also deter people.

Joe Anderson, mayor of Liverpool, told the FT the council would top up funds for those in need. He accepted there would be “hiccups” on the way but this was the best way for the country to return to normality. 

Members of the public queue at Wavertree © Colin McPherson/FT

Such was demand at the tennis centre that by 2pm two queues more than 100 long had formed. Some of those who had booked for the LTFs were directed to an outdoor testing facility on the same site that used the PCR swab tests. Some people went home after waiting for more than two hours.

John Ashton said such problems, and the resources required to run the tests, meant scaling the scheme nationwide could prove impossible. “You are not going to find 2,000 soldiers for every city; this could be another case of over-promising and under-delivering.”

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