The UK could get back to normal by Christmas if the rapid coronavirus testing being trialled by the Government is successful, Matt Hancock said today.
The Health Secretary, who has announced a £500million investment in a mass on-the-spot saliva testing regime, said it was the 'best shot' at ending social distancing.
Although treatments for the virus are improving, unless a vaccine is found it still cannot be cured or prevented completely.
So keeping track of the bug and squashing it out of communities is the only way to prevent more people ending up in hospital and dying.
When asked about ending social distancing, Mr Hancock said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: 'I hope that if this mass testing regime comes off, if the new technologies we’re working so hard on work, or we manage to get a vaccine between now and then – which we can’t rule out – then I hope we can have the happy and loving Christmas that people yearn for.'
However as the Health Secretary promises testing will get Britain out of its current situation, the official testing regime is rationing swabs and making some people travel more than 100 miles to get them.
The tests – of which around 180,000 are done each day – are being used more in areas that are in local lockdowns or at risk of facing extra restrictions.
As a result, people who feel unwell in less badly-affected areas of the country are struggling to access the swabs and some report being told to drive for hours to centres in other cities, counties or even countries.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced the Government is investing £500million in mass rapid testing for the coronavirus
Testing has increased vastly from no more than 13,000 tests per day at the start of April to around 150,000 in July and 200,000 in August
Britons who show Covid symptoms can apply for drive-through tests, but some have revealed they are directed to centres more than 100 miles away (Pictured: A family member administers a self-test to a child at a station in Leicester)
The Health Secretary has defended the current testing system and said: 'At the moment the system works well. Of course there are operational challenges from time to time but it works well.
'And we're finding a higher and higher proportion of people in the country who have coronavirus and getting them tests so they can be looked after.
'But absolutely we need to roll out more testing - we have done throughout this crisis and today's another step in solving some of those problems with the existing technology.'
This morning he said the rapid testing was Britain's best chance at getting back to normal.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for secondary school teachers to be regularly tested for Covid-19 to improve parent confidence that classrooms are virus-free.
The Commons Health Committee chairman backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, whose early coronavirus mortality modelling helped influence the Government decision to instigate the lockdown in March, for 'rapid testing' in schools.
His comments came as pupils returned to school for the start of the new academic year, the first time some of them had been in class since the lockdown was introduced six months ago.
The ex-cabinet minister told BBC Radio 4: 'We know something now we didn't know back in January, which is that about 70 per cent of the people who transmit coronavirus don't have any symptoms at all, and so that makes it much harder to get public consent for things like sending people back to school or going back to offices and so on, because it is a silent transmitter and even a silent killer sometimes.
'The way you get round that is by having very quick, very effective, large-scale testing.
'I think, in fairness to the Government, it is heading in this direction, but we could be much more systematic about it if we really wanted to raise confidence.
'If, for example, we said that every secondary school teacher was going to be tested twice a week, then that would really give people confidence that if they were sending their kids back to school, they weren't sending them into a zone where they might pick up the virus.'
The Government has announced it is pouring £500million into trialling and manufacturing tests that can be done on the spot using people's saliva.
These can give a positive or negative result in just 20 minutes, compared to the current lab-based swabs that can take days to complete.
Main pilots of the portable 'lab in a van' tests will take place in Salford, Southampton in Hampshire.
Mr Hancock refused to put a date on when the tests would be available more widely to people around the UK but he said it would be 'in the coming weeks and months', appearing to be planning for them to be in use by the winter.
Experts say that winter is likely to bring a resurgence in cases, hospitalisations and deaths caused by Covid-19 because viruses tend to spread more effectively in colder weather and the country will also have to deal with the flu at the same time.
On Radio 4 this morning the Health Secretary said: 'Short of a vaccine this is the best chance we have of reducing social distancing whilst controlling the virus, especially with winter coming with all the challenges that brings.'
He said that hoped the testing would allow people to have a 'happy and loving Christmas' with their friends and family.
But cautioned: 'We will of course do everything we can to keep people safe. We can’t say that absolutely yet.
'But let us all try to just pull together, do the social distancing, back all these new innovative technologies that scientists are coming up with. And then, just maybe, we can have that Christmas that everybody wants to see.'
The £500 million funding package will support trials of a 20-minute Covid-19 test and efforts to explore the benefits of repeatedly testing people for the virus.
Money will go towards launching new community-wide repeat population testing trial in Salford, Greater Manchester.
Existing trials in Southampton and Hampshire, using a no-swab saliva test and a rapid 20-minute test, will also be expanded through the new funding.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said saliva-based testing will also be used in the pilot in Salford, which will involve the city council and other local partners.
A select number of residents will be invited for a weekly test, with the pilot performing up to 250 tests a day.
The initial focus will be on high-footfall areas of Salford, such as shopping centres, public transport and places of worship.
The project's aim is to identify positive coronavirus cases early, including for those with no or minor symptoms, so people can self-isolate.
'The second use of testing,' Mr Hancock added on Radio 4 this morning, 'is to remove some of the restrictions that we currenrtly have.
'Because if you test and you test negative, you may catch the virus in a few days' time but we know that you’re negative