Among many criticisms levelled at the Government during the Covid-19 crisis, one of the biggest is that the UK isn’t doing enough testing for the virus.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has consistently advised that this is key to stopping the pandemic, with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, its director-general, insisting “you cannot fight a fire blindfolded… test, test, test”, so this has become an extremely pressing area for politicians everywhere. Especially as widespread testing was credited for reducing cases and deaths in China and South Korea.
Some data makes the UK look very poor, indeed, including graphs that compare the UK (which has tested 828 people per million of the population) to Bahrain (8,430) and South Korea (5,767). These countries test at significantly higher rates than the rest of the globe, so isolating the UK against them will make us look disproportionately bad. Other analyses paint a fairer picture; having issued over 50,000 tests, the UK is above Canada, the US, Norway, India and France. Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Officer, has said the country is one of the “top three or four countries” in terms of testing.
With that being said, it is still vital the Government increases its capacity, and at PMQs yesterday Boris Johnson announced that the number of tests would increase to 10,000 a day – with the goal of reaching 25,000 a day. So far, tests have been reserved for people in hospital, but there are growing demands from other groups (people at home who are sick) to hurry up and hand them out.
Sir Patrick has told MPs there is no capacity for “mass testing”, so this creates something of a headache for Johnson and his team (and, indeed, other leaders around the world). How do they prioritise tests when they have a limited amount?
The Government has been advised that priority should go to “the most vulnerable groups”. But NHS staff are, at the same time, asking that they be prioritised as a matter of course. Understandably many have huge fears of inadvertently passing the virus on to patients and other employees. Their concerns are so grave that almost one million people (at the time of writing) signed a petition asking the Government to act. And so, yesterday, at PMQs, Johnson did – assuring that: “We are prioritising NHS staff for the obvious reason that we want them to be able to look after everybody else with confidence that they are not transmitting the disease.”
It is a start in allaying concerns, but the Government will still have complaints of not doing enough, especially as Jeremy Corbyn has pointed out that the healthcare frontline workforce is far larger than the numbers of tests being provided. So even if Johnson did redirect the resources, there would not be a sufficient amount.
There are other variables, too, that influence the Government’s use of tests. Statistical modelling is a huge factor. In order to fight the virus and calibrate the next Government response, Johnson’s team has to understand how it has spread across the population. Some of this involves random testing that produces negative results. It seems trivial, but is nonetheless crucial in getting a grip on the pandemic.
Overall, the lack of tests in the UK will be a wake-up call about why it’s important to have a proactive healthcare system. The Financial Times suggests the main reason countries like South Korea have an advantage in terms of testing is that they learnt from the SARS epidemic. Following that, they invested heavily in preparing for future such incidences, whereas other countries were more relaxed about the aftermath, hence they are now frantically trying to create more tests. It is an important lesson; that economic dominance can be threatened by pandemics, and similar events.
But critics of the Government should take note of how data is being used, and whether parts are being cherry picked it to make Johnson look hopeless. There are additional, complex factors around the tests that need to be taken into account when judging the UK’s credentials. Quantity is not everything; there will also be questions about how good each country’s tests are. Currently, the WHO has sent out one million of its own tests, but governments and academic institutions are also allowed to create their own, which risks variance in how good each is – and the data they produce.
In China, for instance, an official claimed the tests being used were 10-50 percent accurate at spotting the infection, with the country producing 1.6m tests a day. While the country appears to have stopped the spread, it does raise questions about whether global estimates of coronavirus are right. But the UK-bashing is misled…
In other more cheerful news…
On ITV’s Peston last night, Mark Walport, professor and Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, told the TV presenter that the UK is “very close” to having a Covid-19 test that can tell if someone has already had the disease and is immune to it. With so many of us feeling dread about being locked in doors for the foreseeable future, this provides hope of a future; one in which our workforce can start to trickle back again. “Very close”. They are words to hold onto.