Over the last few days the Government has been attacked yet again over its Coronavirus testing regime. There have been repeated reports of doctors, nurses and others unable to access tests in parts of the UK.
Indeed,The Times found that 85 per cent of the population couldn’t get one at some point yesterday; BirminghamLive discovered “hundreds” being sent to a mobile site for testing in Edgbaston, only to find an abandoned carpark, and The Sunday Times uncovered a backlog of 185,000 swabs – some of which had been sent to Germany and Italy for processing.
Given that Boris Johnson has previously called the country’s programme “world beating”, the Government is under huge pressure to explain what’s gone wrong.
The main problem seems to be that laboratory testing can’t keep up with current demand, thus testing centres have cut back on appointments to catch up. In the meantime, members of the public have been baffled by messages saying that the “service is currently very busy” when they try to use the online booking system.
From Labour’s perspective, the latest development is yet more evidence of testing being a “shambles”. Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Health Secretary, has suggested that the system has struggled because of an over-reliance on post-graduate science students to analyse lab results – who were only there over the summer. He said that this showed a failure of the Government to expand NHS capacity.
John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and a senior government adviser, was equally scathing. He said that tests had run out because ministers had not been prepared enough for a second wave of infections, and “underestimated” how quickly cases would rise.
Matt Hancock, on the other hand, has blamed some of the shortages on a “sharp rise in people coming forward for a test, including those who are not eligible”. A Government source says that some of the groups that have asked for one include people with no symptoms who want a test before going on holiday, as well as schools who have a student with symptoms wanting tests for everyone else.
The Government is doing all it can to fix the issue. First of all, Hancock promised to not “shirk from decisions about prioritisation”, with NHS patients and staff given tests first, followed by care homes. The Government has also pleaded with people who don’t have symptoms not to use up the current tests. This is important not only so that those who need them can get them, but also because it could distort epidemiological figures – if scientists cannot detect real Covid-19 cases.
On Sky News, too, Robert Buckland said that the Government was seeking to open 100 more test centres, and there is also said to be a “mega lab” on the way to enhance capacity.
Although the testing has had difficulties, should be pointed out that the UK is still performing more tests than most countries.
Our World in Data, a research team based at the University of Oxford, estimates that the UK carries out 2.8 tests per 1,000 people (a seven-day average until 10 September), putting it above France (2.1), and Spain and Germany (1.8 both).
Of course, over the next few weeks the Government will have even more challenges in regards to testing, with NHS Test and Trace’s (England) increasingly expected to deliver its contact tracing app, which is critical to avoiding nationwide lockdowns.
Much of the focus has been on technical faults in the system, but the Government will also have to tackle the issue of compliance rates. How easy will it be to get the British public to download the thing? And that’s before we get to the roll out of vaccines, and what compliance looks like for them.
All in all, this latest testing setback is a sign of several other big ones down the road.