This morning, the Government received huge criticism over the speed at which it has produced Coronavirus antigen tests – or strictly speaking, RNA tests (which detect the presence or absence of the disease). The UK has been portrayed as “shambles” and disaster on the world stage, with many believing it lags behind numerous other countries.
Some criticisms have an element of truth; South Korea, the US and others have been much better at delivering tests than the UK, with Germany making 500,000 a week. The Government has also fallen behind its own pledges. Originally Boris Johnson promised to get to 10,000 tests a day, then 25,000 and 250,000, but the UK has barely reached the first target.
Various explanations have been attributed to testing deficiencies. One is a shortage of key chemicals called ”reagents” needed for RNA testing, which the Government is trying to sort out. Another is that the UK never planned for a pandemic in the same way that South Korea and Taiwan did after SARS.
And there are complaints that the UK didn’t react quickly enough to events in China earlier this year, unlike Germany – which rapidly ordered tests. Even so, some of the attacks on the Government have been hysterical and unfair.
One suspects that, with newspapers plagued by falling advertising revenues, and no big political decision to report on the horizon – lockdown, economic measures or otherwise – this is a stick that the media has decided to beat the Government with.
It’s easy to do this if you frame data in a certain way. There have been, for instance, at least one too many articles that compare the UK only to South Korea, Germany and the US, which are anomalies in the global stakes – in their ability to produce masses of tests.
For example, Buzzfeed uses this selection and concludes: “The data tells a clear story: The UK’s numbers and aspirations fall well short of other major economies”. Nowhere does it support such a sweeping statement – it’s sample size is too small – and, on a pedantic note, editors do not clarify what falling “well short” means statistically.
If one was to frame Britain in a wider global context, the conclusions would change. For instance, we are ahead of France and Japan, if COVID-19 testing is measured per million (not that this is a competition), and this should be reflected in write-ups.
There are are other, wider factors to mull. For example, it’s not at all clear that mass antigen testing, as opposed to antibody testing, has ever been the Government’s aspiration, or is now. Ministers should be clearer on that point.
What we do know is that the UK wants hospital testing to be prioritised – clearly this is urgent – and has stopped community testing (which, incidentally, may explain why its ‘test per head’ rate looks poor next to others’).
But is it aiming to hit huge numbers in the first place? Jonathan Van Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, yesterday called testing a “side issue”, and suggested that social distancing is key to reducing deaths in the UK. If the Government’s aim is to control the pressure on the NHS, lockdown should achieve this (if properly observed).
That’s why it is premature at the very least to deem the Government’s policy a failure. And it remains unclear whether mass testing, although useful, is the salvation it’s been hailed, especially as it has not stopped shocking death rates in some countries.
Italy, for instance, is the second highest at testing (per head) of any country after Switzerland, but has had tragic outcomes. Germany’s testing regime, too, is excellent, but it has still not ”flattened the curve”, as some reporting might lead one to expect, and it appears on a similar trajectory to Britain in terms of death rates.
In the case of Germany, another fact ignored by the media is why it has been able to produce masses of tests. Some commentators have fawned over the country. “Why can’t we be like Germany?!” They demand. Private healthcare is one of the reasons, though. Its system means that anyone with symptoms can be tested, with most covered by health insurance and the country’s large number of private laboratories.
If the Government’s critics want German test numbers, they need a German healthcare system. Are any of them seriously proposing scrapping the NHS?
Additionally, Jack Dickens for Reaction explains that Germany’s decentralised set-up has helped it, meaning that there are “approximately 400 different authorities throughout the Federal Republic”, which have allowed it to “provide an effective testing programme from an early stage”.
In Britain, on the other hand, testing is done by 12 state-owned laboratories run by Public Health England and other public health agencies, with about 40 managed by the NHS. This is certainly one reason that we are not as fast as Germany.
A theory that is becoming more popular by the day is that the UK needs to relax accreditation rules and allow private, university and charity labs to test for COVID-19. Then again, if the Government’s goal isn’t mass testing, the urgency for this changes.
Some of the UK’s reliance on testing may shift in the coming weeks if antibody tests, which look for signs that someone has been infected through searching for an immune response, reach the country. Ministers have ordered 17.5 million of these, which will be transformative in determining the Government’s future strategy for tackling the Coronavirus.
This should reduce the demand for RNA testing, and – hopefully – should mean those who’ve had the Coronavirus can go safely back to work. In conclusion, it is impossible to damn the Government this early on. It is the symptom of critics desperate to find wrongs in its approach. Let’s hope, at least, that they can stop pretending the world consists of only four countries.