In this alternative timeline, everything has changed in the space of a month. The crisis that grips the world is sure to be era-defining. Horrifying statistics fly through the air like stray bullets. Graphs of doom plague our news feeds. The sheer volume of total unknowns is petrifying.
As we breach the rapid acceleration phase of the coronavirus pandemic, we have no idea how long the horrors will last, how far the infection will spread or how many lives it will claim.
The key to learning more about where we are and where we’re going is testing. Overall, in the eyes of the public at least, the government’s response to coronavirus has been extraordinarily strong – but testing failures threaten to capsize the whole national effort.
Testing is indispensable in the battle against an epidemic. It is the only tool for tracking the spread of the virus and its fatality rates. Perhaps even more pertinently, it is urgently needed in order to equip and protect heroic NHS staff as we enter the most dangerous and challenging stage of the outbreak.
Just 0.4 per cent of frontline NHS staff have been tested for coronavirus. That number is shamefully small. Vast swathes of those crucial workers are currently self-isolating at home because they or a member of their family has displayed what may or may not be COVID-19 symptoms.
Any number of others who remain at work may be carrying the virus asymptomatically, placing both them and their vulnerable patients at unnecessary risk. The extremity of the need for huge numbers of tests cannot be understated.
The issue of testing is slowly but surely edging its way into the public conscience. It was never made entirely clear why tests were yanked away from us last month, against a backdrop of other countries around the world ramping up their testing as much as they possibly could. Now, the situation is more urgent than ever.
Some countries, such as South Korea, reacted with incredible speed and efficiency to the outbreak, engaging in mass testing and contact tracing in order to contain it. Those countries seem, so far, to have done a remarkable job of flattening the curve and keeping the contagion in check.
The situation in other European countries is also very different to that in the UK. Germany, for instance, has tested three times more people than Britain, relative to its population. Unhelpfully for government spokespeople, it also has much lower death rates, making the UK numbers seem alarming in comparison. The US has increased its daily testing by a factor of 21 over the last fortnight, while the UK has barely managed to double it each day.
Even the British government itself seems taken aback by our testing failures. On 11 March, it declared it would reach 10,000 tests per day within two weeks. It took more than three weeks for that target to actually be reached on 2 April.
There is no reason why this should have been the case.
In January, Public Health England unilaterally decided that it wanted to conduct all the UK’s coronavirus testing itself, out of one laboratory. Two months later, through gritted teeth, it agreed to grant the necessary permissions allowing twelve other labs to start testing, along with a handful of NHS facilities.
Meanwhile, dozens – hundreds, even – of other perfectly usable labs around the country sit idle, for reasons that are wholly inexplicable. Our universities contain some of the very best scientific institutions in the world, not to mention the many charity laboratories and, indeed, the remainder of the NHS facilities where no progress is being made on testing because authorisation from Public Health England has not been forthcoming. And that’s before we get to the private sector.
When the government issued the call for ventilators, private companies leapt onto centre stage, competing with one another over who could be the most generous towards the cause. Producers churned out ventilators which will go on to save thousands of lives.
And yet, the government for so long refused to do the same thing on testing. Many research facilities have been begging for weeks to be allowed to use their resources to contribute to the national effort, but the authorities have opted not to grant them permission to do so. Disastrous testing plans have led to an emergency situation.
It was only after the publication of Testing Times, a timely and much-needed report from Matthew Lesh, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, that the government finally began to signal a change of direction.
The report set exactly what steps need to be taken to make proper use of the vast body of resources the UK has at its disposal, to give our national testing capacity the substantive boost it so desperately needs. Matt Hancock responded by issuing a call for those with access to private facilities to inform the government of how they can be of service, in order to begin to make proper use of the vast body of resources the UK has at its disposal.
This is a significant step forward, but it denotes the beginning, not the end, of our concerted effort to improve our testing capacity. If the government is to have any chance of meeting its new target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of the month, Public Health England must dispense with its bizarre control freakery forthwith. It must loosen the reins and allow those world-class laboratories to get to work and begin producing COVID-19 tests on a mass scale. It was after doing precisely this last month that the US saw its testing numbers skyrocket.
If Public Health England refuses to burn the red tape and allow testing to take place in facilities outside of its direct control extremely soon, countless lives will be needlessly lost. There is no good reason to allow those labs to continue sitting empty as pressure piles onto the NHS and the virus tears through the population. We need thousands upon thousands more tests than we are currently producing, and we need them yesterday.