The UK's Covid-19 testing scandal

The UK's Covid-19 testing scandal

Finally, Britain has a clear strategy on testing, After a barrage of criticism, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced last week that the Government would call on university and private-sector laboratories to help deliver 100,000 Covid-19 tests a day by the end of the month. Coming as it does after weeks of excuses, the promise will have been “music to people’s ears”. But it wasn’t so long ago, that Boris Johnson said he was aiming for 250,000 tests a day. And by mid-week, the Government was still only delivering 14,000 daily tests, with just 266,000 carried out in total. As of last week, only 2,000 out of a total 500,000 front-line NHS staff had been tested.

So why wasn’t this “Dunkirk approach” to laboratory testing – using “little ships to aid destroyers” – adopted weeks ago, It’s “clearly” the right way forward, but has arrived far too late in the day. Blame Public Health England, for weeks, it reportedly declined offers from scientific institutions to help expand testing. Instead – thanks to a mixture of “control freakery and incompetence” – it initially insisted all tests be done at its own lab in London, even as the failure to test NHS workers was “undoubtedly costing lives”.

Ministers bear some responsibility too, If testing had been the strategy from the off, Britain could have increased its manufacturing and imports of test kits before global demand outstripped supply. As it was, no such preparations were made – and Britain lost valuable time increasing its laboratory capacity. When it finally decided to ramp up testing, the UK found itself in a “worldwide scramble” for the necessary laboratory equipment, And while ministers point to a global shortage of chemical reagents needed for tests to work, industry figures have disputed the claim.

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make officials dealing with this crisis bristle, it’s mentioning the Germans,The UK and Germany entered the crisis in “lock-step”, working together on some of the world’s first Covid-19 tests. But Germany’s labs – with help from German healthcare giant Roche – have worked at four times the NHS rate, conducting almost a million tests already. It’s a “national humiliation”, and the fact that Britain must now source much of its testing equipment from China, a developing economy, renders it “doubly demeaning”. 

There are two different types of test, One – the “antigen” test – detects whether people are currently infected, and requires laboratory space. The second – the “antibody” test – in theory establishes whether people have already had the virus and could be immune, and can be done with just a spot of blood. Yet none of the antibody tests bought by the Government has yet proved accurate enough; this week, ministers called on British industry to produce one that works. Only when a reliable test is brought into mass circulation might we “finally return to normal life”.