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The government has been warned the roll out of coronavirus antibody tests could see workers be discriminated against on the basis of status, people faking results or even seeking to “deliberately” become infected.
Scientists advising the UK government on its response to the pandemic also raised concerns people who test positive for antibodies could ditch measures designed to stop the spread of the disease — such as hand washing.
While people who tested negative could take “excessive” actions to avoid social contact leading to “adverse psychological and social outcomes”, the paper produced by the scientific pandemic influenza group on behaviour (SPI-B) added.
The document, published on Tuesday, was presented to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the group of experts which is helping guide the government’s strategy, on April 14.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Monday he was in talks with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche about a “very large-scale roll-out” of coronavirus antibody testing.
Roche said the test has a specificity greater than 99.8% and sensitivity of 100%, meaning there is a low chance of a misread.
But Hancock admitted that there had been problems with antibody testing, having previously said the UK would order 17.5 million home testing kits only to find they did not work.
The SPI-B paper said antibody testing had the potential to help the country reopen offices and other workplaces in a way that did not increase infection.
But it sought to highlight some “possible negative behavioural responses” in order for them to be pre-empted.
“If a test result is a requirement for a resumption of work, a range of strategies to ‘game’ the system may arise,” the scientists said.
“These include people deliberately seeking out infection or attempting to purchase a fake test result, commercial organisations selling unapproved tests, or approved tests becoming available through private organisations at prices that make them unavailable to most.”
It added: “Some employers may discriminate on the basis of antibody status.
“This might include not permitting those testing antibody negative to return to work, or only taking on new staff with antibody positive test results.
“Work may also be allocated among employees based on test status with, for example, customer-facing work being allocated to those who have tested antibody positive.
“In some circumstances this may be appropriate, but in others this might constitute adverse discrimination.”
David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a former chair of Public Health England, told HuffPost UK in early April there was “always a concern” people could try to become infected deliberately.
“There was chickenpox before,” he said. “Many times people try and expose their children to measles to get them sick early on so they would be immune later on.
“It’s not a good idea. This disease is infectious and it affects all people and can cause illness in all people.”
The Guardian reported on Monday that ministers are holding talks with technology firms over the creation of “health passports” which use “coronavirus testing and facial recognition” to prove which workers have had the illness.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics released on Tuesday showed there were 29,710 deaths involving Covid-19 in England and Wales up to April 24 (and which were registered up to May 2).
It comes as trials are beginning on a new coronavirus contact-tracing app which ministers say will save lives and help lift Britain out of lockdown.
NHS and council staff on the Isle of Wight are being urged to download the Covid-19 smartphone app from Tuesday, with the rest of the island’s population invited to follow from Thursday.