Up to 10 per cent of England’s population could be tested for coronavirus each week using 30-minute saliva kits.
Government officials have asked local health chiefs to deploy the saliva kits, known as lateral flow tests, in a bid to accelerate Boris Johnson’s “Moonshot” testing plan.
In a letter seen by the Guardian, NHS test and trace claims it is embarking on an “important new front in our fight against coronavirus” and asks all directors of public health to sign up to receive rapid-result test kits for up to a tenth of their populations every week, to contain outbreaks and preserve freedoms.
This could mean national testing is ramped up to up to 5m tests weekly from the current rate of about 300,000 swab tests, known as PCR kits, which take up to 48 hours to process results in many cases.
But local health leaders are concerned about the cost of rolling out the tests coupled with the logistical challenge of tracing the contacts of those who test positive.
In the leaked letter, Alex Cooper, director of rapid testing at NHS test and trace, said: “Each director of public health will be eligible to receive on a weekly basis the number of tests equivalent to 10 per cent of their population.”
Last week Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told parliament the government had bought “many millions” of saliva tests made by the company Innova.
Mr Johnson said on 16 October that the tests would become available “to help control localised outbreaks” but the latest strategy would extend beyond saliva test trials announced for schools, universities and care homes.
It came as hopes for a vaccine were renewed last night, as it emerged that a German vaccine backed by Pfizer could be ready to distribute before Christmas, with the first doses to be given to the elderly and vulnerable.
Albert Bournla, the chief executive of Pfizer, said that the vaccine was in the "last mile" with results expected in weeks.
Senior government sources told the Times that a verdict on the German vaccine will come ahead of Oxford's vaccine, which isn't expected till the New Year.