Boris Johnson’s Covid moonshot can’t even get off launchpad – Christine Jardine

The coronavirus testing system is already failing and it is not yet being pushed to what is supposed to be its capacity, writes Christine Jardine MP.

A worker collects a swab test from a member of the public at a Covid test site (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A worker collects a swab test from a member of the public at a Covid test site (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

It’s difficult to imagine how stressful a situation it is until you are the one who gets the call to say: “You have to be tested, you might have been in contact with Covid-19.”

From that moment until the result arrived, I could think about little else.

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What had been a positive – no pun intended – successful week, now had the potential to be disastrous. I was in London alone. My family were in Edinburgh.

If I had it who could I have possibly and unwittingly passed it on to?

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My daughter? My friend with type 1 diabetes that I had met in the park? The friend I met for dinner 48 hours before I got the call?

What about all my colleagues, the staff in parliament and God knows who else they could all have been in contact with?

My parliamentary office was closed, cleaned and I waited. I felt perfectly healthy but knew that was no pointer and I had to wait in isolation.

Fortunately the story had a happy, and negative, ending for me but as I observed the unfolding national chaos over testing this past week, I felt for everyone involved.

Well perhaps not everyone.

There are one or two individuals in both of Scotland’s Governments that my grandmother would have suggested needed their “heads banged together”. Not that social distancing would allow for that.

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Let’s just say that my sympathies lie with those trying to plot their way through the mystery of our testing system, rather than those attempting to explain it away. But I prefer to avoid playground bickering.

That latter skill is something that one might imagine our governments would be getting quite adept at by this stage in the coronavirus crisis.

There was the PPE debacle, the Tories’ explanation for which I am still trying to decipher.

The scandal of Scotland’s care home sector in which the needs of some of our most vulnerable are still not, I believe, being adequately addressed.

And now a testing fiasco in which we have seen people advised to travel hundred of miles while potentially infectious – or put in a false postcode to get their nearest test.

Twitter was alive with pictures of people trying to overcome the hurdles preventing a test.

In Sunderland the queue of cars pictured at the testing centre was a mile long.

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But no. This Government’s powers of analysis and explanation seemed to have improved not one jot in this crisis.

And in parliament we had the ridiculous spectacle of the Health Secretary at first seeming to refuse to accept the evidence provided by my colleague Munira Wilson MP that the post-code driven service was somehow convinced that Aberdeen and Dundee’s most convenient test centre was in Twickenham. But it did.

I suspect Armando Iannucci would probably have thought that last one too far fetched even for “The Thick of It”.

I suspect that this time last week those of us who have so far managed to avoid contracting the virus were beginning to relax a little.

We might have been thinking that it would be OK to visit those friends for the weekend after all.

And a couple of hours in the pub wouldn’t do any harm, would it?

Perhaps nationally we were also becoming confident that the worst might be over and there would be time to look at what lessons we could learn from the past seven months.

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That certainly seemed the case at the end of the week when the Select Committee charged with the responsibility reported to parliament on how a public inquiry might look.

But going into this weekend the warning signs were everywhere.

Covid cases are beginning to climb again and we need to get ourselves sorted quickly.

The North East of England is back in lockdown, as are parts of Wales.

The Scottish Government has already clamped down in some areas and is making worried noises about the rising R number. Lothian might be next.

The reality is that there is no silver bullet for this crisis.

Not, that is, until the scientists are able to come up with a vaccine that works, and is safe.

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With the exception of the curious case of the alleged vaccine in Russia, our scientists in Oxford seemed nearest to a solution until they hit a complication in recent weeks.

Hopefully that is now, or shortly will be, back on track.

But in reality an effective vaccine may still be some way off, even in the most optimistic scenario.

Without it the best alternative we have is effective test and trace. And so far that is not looking too healthy.

If we don’t get it sorted soon, the ramifications could be huge on an already strained NHS.

Last winter, pre-Covid-19, bed capacity was at 90-95 per cent so that beds had to be juggled and patients discharged as soon as possible.

We had the worst A&E waiting time on record in places and the service is already around 100,000 staff short.

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Medical staff should be able to get fast-tracked tests as key workers but the system has to work for all of us.

Past history tells us there is roughly six weeks before we begin to feel the expected ‘normal’ winter strain. Time is short.

For schools too there are implications. An efficient testing system allows teachers to return to classrooms more quickly.

While the negative effects of further school closures on children’s academic careers could have long-term personal and economic implications.

And what about access for those with a physical disability or availability for those in remote rural areas?

Most worrying of all, perhaps, is the fact that the system is already failing and it is not yet being pushed to what is supposed to be its capacity. Eleven weeks in a row it failed to meet its targets.

To add insult to injury the Prime Minister wants to “shoot for the moon”. He would be advised to be sure we can get off the launchpad first.

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Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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