Mass coronavirus testing may not be available for some areas in the toughest tier of England’s restrictions until “January and beyond”, the government’s head of operations for community testing has said.

General Sir Gordon Messenger said the type of mass testing that has been on offer in Liverpool led by the armed forces would be “simply undeliverable” for all areas of the country.

He stressed the need to move away from the term “mass testing” because areas will have to be prioritised for community screening based on how long they have been under harsh restrictions and how ready they are to deliver the programme.

Boris Johnson had suggested that mass testing would allow a route out of the toughest Covid restrictions for the 23m people who will be in tier 3 areas when England’s lockdown ends on Wednesday.

The prime minister has praised the success of community testing in Liverpool, where more than 200,000 people were screened for Covid-19 – including by using rapid lateral flow tests, which give results within 30 minutes.

Johnson said that the testing programme, as well as tier 3 restrictions, helped lower the incidence of the virus in the area by allowing the isolation of asymptomatic carriers, allowing it to be downgraded to tier 2 from Wednesday.

But Messenger warned that while the programme in Liverpool was delivered by a primarily military workforce, that same set-up cannot be repeated.

General Sir Gordon Messenger, head of operations for the community testing programme

“I can say with confidence that cannot be replicated around the country, and therefore the military support, along with all other types of central support, has to be targeted where it’s needed most and where it can have the greatest effect,” he told a Downing Street briefing.

“So that is our starting assumption. As I say, I’ve no doubt that the military will play a prominent role.

“But the idea that it can be a wholesale offer to all local authorities is simply undeliverable given what the military are doing already.”

Messenger said community testing would instead be delivered by local authorities accessing volunteers, the private sector and central government, along with help from the military.

“We are alive to the possibility that we will not be able to do this all at once,” he said.

“But we assess that local authorities are at varying levels of preparedness and readiness to do this and therefore I can see this as an offer that will sequence over time and into January and beyond.

“The priority that we accord, the levels of support that we give, will be based on the infection rate, how long those areas have been under harsh restrictions, how mature their plans are, how ready they are to deliver them.

“And that’s the business of the next week or so, to try and identify some frontrunners and to lean into support of them so we can have a quick early impact.”

He added: “But I can see this being sequenced over time.”

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