From David Maughan Brown in York: Still testing

May 1st

Mea culpa.  What was I thinking yesterday when I cast doubt on the possibility of the government meeting its entirely arbitrary Covid-19 target of 100,000 tests a day by April 30th?  The Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, this afternoon proudly announced that on April 30th the number of completed tests was, in fact, rather over 122,000.  My problem, I have to confess, was that I just hadn’t been keeping up with the times.  On Wednesday 28th April roughly 54,000 people were tested, and it seemed something of a stretch, to put it mildly, to imagine that after ‘ramping up’ the testing to just over half the target in the first 28 days of the month the ‘ramping up’ could be turbocharged to the point where that number could be doubled in the remaining two days of the month.  But I hadn’t been paying attention and was naïve enough to imagine that the number of tests announced each day referred to the number of people who had been tested that day.   I hadn’t picked up that although only just over 54,000 people had been tested on Wednesday the number of tests government claimed was actually rather over 81,000.  27,000 of those tests were ‘retests’, although quite how people could be tested and then retested on the same day remains a mystery.

A huge amount of effort on the part of very many public servants has gone into increasing the number of tests being carried out, and those on the ground organizing and carrying out the testing are to be warmly commended on that.  But, at the risk of seeming churlish, it is quite clear that the figures are being massaged.  For the past week Hancock has seemed extremely anxious about the possibility of his thumb-suck target being met, to the point where he started talking about increasing the UK’s testing ‘capacity’ to 100,000 tests a day, implicitly acknowledging that his target for actual tests was unlikely to be met.   But then someone appears to have had a better wheeze and the number of home test kits sent out every day has been added into the daily count.  So the 40,000 test-kits ‘delivered’ on Friday were counted in the total, entirely regardless of whether they had reached the people they were intended for, whether the tests had been completed, and whether the results had been recorded.  The number of verified tests was much closer to 80,000.

Being skeptical of Matt Hancock’s numbers is a sure sign that I just don’t have the faith.  Leaping from 52,000 to 122,000 completed tests over the space of two or three days would require a miracle, and who is around to work miracles?  The answer, as far as much of our media is concerned, would seem obvious.   Boris’s return from the almost-dead this week has been greeted like the Second Coming.  He returned to us from ICU and his privileged convalescence at his second home ‘raring to go’.  No wonder it only took two days for the miracle to come about.  Oh me of little faith!  But it isn’t too late:  there is still time for my subconscious to direct me towards Sylvia Woods’ harp settings of ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’, and I might yet find myself picking out ‘Oh come let us adore him’.   Unlikely, but miracles are apparently possible.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Testing, testing, testing…

30th April

Today is the glorious day by when government promised that the number of Covid-19 tests would have been ‘ramped up’ to the point where the UK would be carrying out 100,000 a day.   It can only be hoped that anyone who has been holding his or her breath waiting for this to be achieved won’t have expired in vain by now.  The BBC’s health correspondent, analysing the situation on the 1pm news, gave us the disappointing information that we wont know for a few days, because it takes time for the results to be processed.   In the meantime he assured us that ‘people can book on line for testing kits to be sent out.’  But the good news, the really, really good news, is that eligibility for tests has been expanded so that ‘anyone who needs to leave home to work’, the over 65s, hospital patients and staff, and care home staff and residents can now be tested ‘even if they don’t have symptoms’.  This, he assured us, meant that we are now just one step away from ‘whole population testing’.

Where does one even begin to comment on such obsequious drivel?  For a start, you don’t have to have the results of the tests to know how many tests have been carried out, and we do, in fact, know that the figure is only somewhere around 52,000.  It is nowhere near the 100,000 promised. The government plaintively says there is more capacity, which just begs the question as to why they can’t organise for the capacity to be fully utilised.   People can indeed, at least in theory, book on line for testing kits, but it is painfully clear that the available number of testing kit slots is hopelessly inadequate.  And the good news about the expanded eligibility is simply ridiculous.  How stupid does the BBC think we are?  The number of people to whom eligibility has been expanded is apparently around 25 million; the total population of the UK is over 65 million.  So the ‘just one step’ we are away from whole population testing is a mere 40 million.  Even at the rate of 100,00 tests a day, which we are still only halfway towards meeting after a month of Ministers ‘doing their very best’, meeting the demand from those of us to whom eligibility has now been extended would take us to Christmas, and the ‘just one step’ beyond that would take well over another year.

So what is going on with the BBC?  In South Africa under apartheid we tended to idealise the BBC as a model of fearless independent broadcasting in comparison with the SABC.  But then, I suppose, we similarly tended to regard the British Bobby as a model to be followed before we learnt about the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, and so on.  What is going on is that the BBC is fearlessly avoiding offending the Tory Party private enterprise fanatics who would like nothing more than to see the license fee done away with.  There is a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had from considering how close to apoplexy they, and the right-wing, mainly foreign, media barons who own and control the vast majority of the British media, must be finding themselves as they see a Tory government having effectively to nationalise more or less everything in sight, from paying the salaries of private sector workers to taking over the railways.   But in the meantime, as the government tries to duck its culpability for the now tens of thousands of coronavirus-related deaths and the BBC carefully avoids holding it to account for those deaths, those of us to whom eligibility for testing has so generously been extended know perfectly well that we will have to carry on for very many months trying to make absolutely certain that we never need a test.