Many months of Tory government failures on testing and tracing are doing serious damage, writes Alex Snowdon
Failures over testing have been a constant thread throughout the British government’s handling of the current pandemic. The problem isn’t going away, with fresh reports of testing shortages in north-east England and widespread concerns about testing not being in place for this week’s full reopening of schools.
The WHO has had a mantra, endlessly repeated since the early days of the pandemic. It has insisted, and continues to insist, that countries must institute a regime of testing, contact tracing and subsequent isolation on a serious scale.
Lockdowns, the WHO has repeatedly said, are vital in many circumstances, but insufficient. It is the prompt and effective use of a ‘test, trace, isolate’ system that provides any country with a sustainable way of keeping virus transmission levels down to negligible levels.
This is because rigorous and large-scale testing provides a wealth of instant useful data on who has the virus, where it is circulating, and how it is being spread. The tracing of contacts allows rapid identification of who needs to self-isolate.
This is crucial for those individuals, but it also stops the circuit of further transmission. Testing therefore provides the foundation for dealing with the virus.
Many countries prevented major outbreaks to begin with by following this advice. Many others, especially in Europe, were too late for that, but they caught up and used testing to suppress emerging local outbreaks after the first wave had been suppressed by lockdown.
The UK, however, has been extremely patchy and slow in providing the necessary resources and implementing the grand announcements made by Tory ministers. It started badly in March when the government suspended the early efforts at coronavirus testing. Since then the handling of testing has been marked by a strange ambivalence.
The good news in the last couple of days is a government pledge to radically upscale the level of testing. But this is woefully late, is a result of massive pressure, and cannot be relied upon considering the previous broken promises in this area.
The gap between rhetoric and reality has become depressingly familiar. Dr Layla McCay, a director at the NHS Confederation, this week pointed out the government’s failure to rise to the challenge: “These improvements are small steps when its own aspirations are for giant leaps”.
The announcement of a new Loughborough laboratory that aims to process 50,000 tests a day by the end of the year is welcome. But imagine if this had been initiated months ago.
It is hopeful that pilot projects for saliva tests are being launched, with the suggestion that they could lead to mass screening of affected groups when outbreaks occur in schools, care homes or large workplaces. But - yet again - why has it taken so long?
There are also mixed messages from government - the kind that can encourage confusion and complacency. Senior NHS figures criticised Matt Hancock, the health secretary, after his suggestion that mass testing could soon eliminate any need for social distancing.
At a time when distancing remains crucial, this risks sending a dangerous message.
There have recently been fine words about the use of testing to suppress the virus where localised outbreaks occur. Yet it emerged yesterday that in parts of north-east England the testing capacity is inadequate. In Gateshead, where numbers have been rising, health officials say that tests are running out within two hours of becoming available.
Gateshead’s council leader Martin Gannon is justifiably angry:
We’ve run out of tests. It’s diabolical. At a time when we’re opening schools, we’ve got an empty void of tests. You can’t control the situation when you haven’t got the facilities to do it.
Schools and their staff are doing an extraordinary job of adapting to current pressures and needs. As a teacher in the north east, I’m very aware of the extensive range of school-level measures being implemented to minimise risk and keep everyone safe. However, I am also acutely conscious of the ongoing shortage of systematic testing and tracing.
That shortage is a failure of government - not local authorities, schools or teachers. There are worrying indications of infection rates rising. With the mass return to school, combined with a concerted push back to workplaces, a further rise will hardly be surprising.
The continuing inadequacies of testing will make it far harder to deal with new outbreaks. This is a result of several months of dithering, delay and incompetence - and of the lack of any coherent strategy. It still isn’t being addressed properly. That needs to change fast.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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