When coronavirus first struck Britain, Boris Johnson assured the public that ‘our country remains extremely well prepared’ to cope.
Among our national assets, he boasted, was a ‘fantastic testing system’.
Even when the virus was at its peak in May, the Prime Minister was still in hyperbolic mode as he promised that the testing regime would soon be ‘world-beating’.
How hollow that rhetoric now sounds. The Government has failed miserably to live up to these extravagant promises. Far from being a global leader, Britain’s shambolic approach to testing is approaching an international embarrassment.
Front-line healthcare workers, including doctors and nurses, are unable to find tests, as are care home residents, teachers and millions of others who, more than six months into the pandemic, could reasonably expect to have a test on demand when required.
Even when the virus was at its peak in May, the Prime Minister was still in hyperbolic mode as he promised that the testing regime would soon be ‘world-beating’
An air of chaos reigns, characterised by limited capacity, difficulties in making appointments, backlogs in processing and long delays in results.
It is a sorry mess that not only fuels profound disillusion among the public, but also represents a serious threat to the nation’s health.
The entire post-lockdown strategy has been based on the creation of a swift, reliable test, track and trace system. Without this, containment of the virus will be much harder.
And quite simply, ministers have failed us. They have to get a grip before it is too late.
As a doctor, I can tell you that the medical profession has been well aware of the problem for months. Despite the vital need for healthcare workers to be Covid-free, nearly all my colleagues have long given up trying to book test appointments for themselves because the task is almost impossible.
An air of chaos reigns, characterised by limited capacity, difficulties in making appointments, backlogs in processing and long delays in results
One associate of mine developed a cough that he felt sure was just part of a cold but, in accordance with the guidelines, he had to isolate himself, while a locum was brought in as cover. That both increased costs to the NHS and undermined continuity of care. If such an experience is continually repeated elsewhere, it will make it difficult for hospitals and clinics — not to mention care homes, schools and workplaces — to function.
Britain’s supposedly ‘world-beating’ system has buckled under the weight of demand.
A study by LBC radio this week found that no walk-in, drive-through or home tests were available in any of the ten areas in England with the highest infection rates, such as Bradford and Manchester.
Yesterday, huge queues were photographed at testing centres in Southend, Bury, Birmingham and Manchester: more symbols of the state’s failure to deliver.
Facing questions in Parliament yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted that 250,000 Britons are waiting for test results thanks to a mammoth backlog. Shamefully, 75 per cent of tests are missing their 24-hour turnaround target.
Britain’s supposedly ‘world-beating’ system has buckled under the weight of demand
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle rightly said this record was ‘unacceptable’ and demanded Mr Hancock take ‘urgent action’. So dire is the position that tests are being sent to Germany and Italy for results, a shameful development.
Beyond the laboratory hold-ups, many people have spoken of the ordeal on the phone or via the website when trying to book a test. ‘It was a nightmare, like dealing with your car insurance provider times a thousand,’ said a caller to a BBC radio show yesterday.
Even when the more fortunate ones manage to secure a place, the test location can be very far away. One teenager from Plymouth on the South coast was offered an appointment in Inverness, Scotland, an 11-hour drive. The blame for this fiasco lies squarely with the Government.
Ministers have shown neither foresight nor effectiveness. Through the long summer months they should have embarked on a huge exercise in strengthening capacity, using the wealth of expertise that lies in the NHS, local government and the public health sector. Instead, they handed control to a number of commercial giants like Serco.
Many experts were sidelined, their experience untapped, their skills ignored. The consequence has been a hopelessly fragmented, disconnected structure that is unable to meet the nation’s needs.
The Government has failed miserably to live up to these extravagant promises. Far from being a global leader, Britain’s shambolic approach to testing is approaching an international embarrassment
As Professor Allyson Pollock, director of the Newcastle University Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science, wrote in July: ‘Britain’s test and trace programme is about as far from integrated or effective as you can get. That’s because a key part of it operates not as part of the NHS, but in parallel to it, as a network of commercial, privatised testing labs, drive-through centres and call centres.’
The result, she added, has been ‘chaos’. In effect, the Government has broken its side of the contract with public. We accepted an unprecedented loss of our essential liberties in return for capable management of the crisis by the state.
But ministers have not kept to the bargain, as shown by a string of failures such as the supply of protective equipment, the farce over the contact tracing app and mixed messages on risk.
This testing farrago is as serious as any of those. It has the potential to devastate the economy, education and the health service itself, not least — as I have seen in my own practice — through absenteeism among staff who have to stay off work because they have some Covid symptoms but cannot get a test.
Last week Boris Johnson set out a grandiose vision of a system that could deliver ten million tests per day by early next year, nicknaming it the ‘moonshot’ programme.
The cost was estimated to be as high as £100 billion, almost the equivalent of the entire NHS budget. But, given the ineptitude, his proposal sounded depressingly absurd rather than boldly inspiring.
The headmasterly Matt Hancock has complained that the ‘frivolous’ demand for tests is stretching capacity beyond its limits. But this attempt to pass the buck is hypocritical.
Facing questions in Parliament yesterday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured) admitted that 250,000 Britons are waiting for test results thanks to a mammoth backlog
It is, after all, Mr Hancock’s Government that not only adopted a deliberate policy to create a climate of fear about coronavirus, but also promised that anyone with symptoms could have a test. It is a bit rich now to blame the public for acting on his own advice.
The Government needs to stop indulging in distractions. Most doctors reportedly believe that a second wave is coming. The demand for tests is thus likely to explode in the coming weeks and months.
The pressures are all the greater because pupils are returning to school, workers are going back to offices and millions will get colds and flu.
Additional pressures will come from the fact that huge numbers of tests have understandably been promised to care homes.
Our country and economy cannot endure another lockdown. But without a vaccine, the only way to avoid such a calamity is an effective testing regime, one that properly uses the resources of the NHS and the public sector.
Yesterday Mr Hancock took a step towards greater humility and urgency in the Commons when he spoke of the ‘enormous challenge’ his Government faces and the need to prioritise tests for ‘those who most need it’.
He added that the problems could be ironed out in ‘weeks’. He now needs to translate his words into deeds.