Mass testing is the only way to stop the Covid-19

Mass testing is the only way to stop the Covid-19

The Government announced a “massive expansion” in eligibility for Covid-19 tests this week as ministers searched for a route out of lockdown. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said tests would be available to all care-home residents and staff, as well as to people who are over 65 or who must go out to work, Mobile units staffed by the army and new home-testing kits were deployed to give extra capacity, leaving Britain “one step away” from giving access to a test to everyone with symptoms. Even so, the idea that the Government would hit its self-imposed target of 100,000 tests a day by Thursday seemed “wildly optimistic”; the daily test total had only reached 43,563 by Monday. Testing has been a “fiasco”, and Hancock has often resembled a man trying to steer an “enormous vessel with a paddle”.

The drive to boost capacity has been a success, three huge labs for processing tests are up and running, and 29 regional test sites have opened. The problem lies in actually giving the tests: the UK was this week conducting fewer than two-thirds of the 73,000 a day it has capacity for. Home-testing kits for key workers ran out within minutes last week, and drive-through slots were booked up in hours. If Britain hopes to “test its way out of lockdown”, the gap between capacity and tests conducted must be closed.

Ministers are also planning “a mass programme of contact tracing” to limit the virus’s spread, A “large-scale” operation to identify carriers and warn those they’ve come into contact with is due to launch within weeks, with 18,000 people hired to do “painstaking” tracing work. A Bluetooth-based smartphone app that would allow alerts to be sent to people who have been near a carrier is also due to be released. This kind of technology is an “absolute requirement” if the lockdown is to be eased, So why doesn’t the UK use the app being developed by Google and Apple? These firms have a huge customer base, state-of-theart technology and great experience of privacy issues. Instead, the NHS is “intent” on launching its own app in three weeks.

The project is fraught with problems, storing people’s data is a civil liberties “nightmare”; any app would only be effective if at least 60% of the population were to use it; and contact tracing will only work if it’s accompanied by a massive increase in testing. Ministers who think that we can exit lockdown “through the App Store” would be wise to remember a harsh truth: “there is no magic bullet for getting us through this pandemic”.