Published:

In the lead up to Christmas, and indeed afterwards, there have been numerous news stories about the Government’s testing programme grounding to a halt. “PCR Covid testing labs are overwhelmed”, reads one headline. Another paper points out that the sole distributor for lateral flow tests/devices (LTDs) closed over Christmas, despite having 2.5 million kits. The message is clear: everything is a disaster!

Anecdotally it’s not hard to spot that there’s a problem with tests (and I say this as someone who has had a cold in the last week, and been unable to check it’s not “that”). The most visible signs are the queues of people in pharmacies trying to get LFDs, even though many of their stocks have also run out.

And these shortages create a whole range of issues, from scientists being unable to accurately monitor Covid in the population, to people walking around with suspected symptoms while hunting for tests, to members of the public being unable to go to work (should they need an LFD result to attend a premise).

That the nation has run dry on tests is not entirely surprising. This has come about largely as a result of 1) Christmas, when everyone wanted to check they were safe before going home to see loved ones and 2) the rise of the ferocious Omicron variant. But could the Government have done more here? Was it ill prepared, in fact?

That is certainly the charge Labour has used against ministers, keen to exploit what is already considered a crisis. Speaking of pharmacy shortages, Wes Streeting, the Shadow Health Secretary, said “Why on earth did the government not prepare for this and ensure alternative options for delivery were secured?” before accusing it of being “asleep at the wheel”.

His view was echoed by Leyla Hannback, Chief Executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, who reportedly warned the UK Health Security Agency that demand for tests was “getting really high” around the Christmas period.

It’s also said that the Government wasn’t prepared enough in terms of expanding Britain’s manufacturing capacity for tests. One paper suggests ministers shelved plans for onshore manufacturing – in short, awarding British business – due to fears about being accused of having a “chumocracy” culture again, with contracts awarded to China instead.

Whether this is true or not remains to be seen. But let’s roll with the main accusation levelled at the Government, which is that it was “asleep at the wheel” about rising demand for tests. This seems to me fairly hyperbolic – to put it mildly – when we still have one of the best testing systems in the world, with around 1.5 million carried out each day in Britain. I rather think our disappointment with the testing system reflects how high our expectations are for it, having become accustomed to a fast and efficient service.

The Government is being even more ambitious it in the future. It wants to increase supplies of LFDs to around 200 million along with 42 million supplies to be sent directly to UK pharmacists, and given its previous history ramping up capacity, expectations should be high here too.

One of the harder questions it might have to face – should there be unprecedented demand again – is how people should be prioritised for tests. Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has said that the Government would “need to constrain” the supply, which might come in the way of better guidance on who should be most entitled to LFDs. Recently, laboratories took up another suggestion for how to ease the system – they stopped checking PCR tests for people with a positive LFD result.

Either way, clearly a lot is going on behind the scenes to get past any issues. On a personal note, during the course of this article I managed to order LFDs and get a PCR result (negative) at 6.40am the next day, so it’s surely a sign of better things to come. At the very least, it is far from a disaster.