Some Tier 3 areas could have to wait until “January and beyond” for mass community testing, according to the programme’s head of operations.
General Sir Gordon Messenger said coronavirus testing for people without symptoms might not be possible everywhere “all at once”.
Community testing – using tests that give a result in under 30 minutes – is credited as having enabled Liverpool to enter this week’s new regime at Tier 2.
Boris Johnson has said expanding the system across England is vital in cutting infection rates and allowing areas to move to looser restrictions.
Speaking alongside the health secretary at Number 10, Sir Gordon said he did not know how many people mass testing would reach to being with.
He said it would “vary from region to region and from area to area”.
“We are alive to the possibility that we will not be able to do this all at once, but we assess that local authorities are at varying levels of preparedness and readiness to do this,” he added.
“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 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.”
Sir Gordon said “frontrunners” in terms of their ability to put on the testing programme would be identified over the next week.
The Army will also not be able to help implement community testing in every area, he added.
About 2,000 soldiers helped with the Liverpool scheme but such support will now be targeted.
“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,” Sir Gordon said.
He said the testing programmes would be “delivered locally with considerable support from the centre”.
Matt Hancock said local authorities could get funding of up to £14 for each test carried out – as he used the Number 10 briefing to state that the pandemic was “back under control”.