Covid testing mess needs to be sorted out – John McLellan

As we wait for a coronavirus vaccine, improving the availability of testing for the disease should be a priority, writes John McLellan

Baroness Dido Harding,  executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, and Boris Johnson, during a coronavirus briefing (Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire)
Baroness Dido Harding, executive chairwoman of NHS Test and Trace, and Boris Johnson, during a coronavirus briefing (Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire)

A string of messages instantly popped up on the chat bar as an alarm blared from the laptop. “Not again!” … “Can’t they turn it off?” … “Is that ASH?” It was indeed the fire alarm of Andrew Stewart Hall, one of Stirling University’s student residences, sending more alarm at the interruption of a live video presentation amongst the new undergraduates than fear of imminent incineration. “Could you all please mute your microphones?” asked our course leader, who would normally be concerned for their safety were he not wrestling with the technology in front of a 200-strong tech-savvy virtual audience waiting to be impressed. Welcome to the wonderful world of higher education in the Age of Covid.

Having established it was indeed a false alarm at the hall and no-one was about to be burned alive because they were too gripped by the journalism studies induction presentation, the video call rolled on. It’s university life, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Having come through the trauma of cancelled exams, over-ridden teacher estimates and government U-turns, thousands of young people have been making their way to university, virtually or otherwise, more unsure of what to expect than any of their forebears. Those now a week into their courses are probably none the wiser about how it will all shape up, not least because whatever freedoms they might have now could be short-lived if the cluster of coronavirus cases at Napier University’s Blanefield residences is replicated elsewhere.

For students joining Stirling’s Communications, Media and Culture department expectations will be high; apart from retaining its position as the top place in Scotland for journalism, it regularly picks up national TV awards for documentary film-making and is equipped with professional TV and radio studios.

So you’d expect some slick, broadcast-quality teaching materials, no problem if you’re a current or former BBC staffer like some of my colleagaues, but when you’ve been schooled in the analogue hey-day of print, it’s a different story. My recordings make Super 8 holiday movies look like a Spielberg production and to think I used to laugh at those Open University programmes presented by men in tank-tops that they used to show on BBC 2 after the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Technology and I have never been the happiest of bedfellows and one of the perils of a “portfolio” of part-time jobs is negotiating the variety of video systems few had heard of a year ago. Suddenly it feels like everyone is a Zoom, Teams, or Hangouts expert except me, but judging by my son’s reports of chaotic video sessions at Heriot-Watt, I don’t think I’m alone. And he’s in the computer studies department.

It’s easy to dwell on the negatives, but a portfolio of part-time jobs at a time of rising unemployment and impending lockdown has obvious advantages. Joblessness in Scotland edged up to 4.6 per cent at the end of July when the cost of the UK Government’s furlough programme to employers began to rise, and there are predictions of a leap to 12 per cent when the scheme closes at the end of October. It has already cost the UK Government over £27bn and although Chancellor Rishi Sunak this week told MPs he was working on “creative and effective ways to support jobs and employment” the investment is unlikely to be as high in which case more lay-offs will be inevitable.

New undergraduates might not be worrying too much about full-time employment prospects for another two or three years, and even pessimists about the prospects for a mass-vaccination programme by spring don’t expect the situation to remain as dire as long as that, but the impact on them could be no less severe.

There might be no tuition fees in Scotland, but the vast majority of students need jobs to pay their rent and living expenses and if there is a widespread and prolonged second lockdown, the bar and restaurant jobs which have been a staple of student working for decades will have vanished and their return in any number possibly years away. If unemployment does rocket, then other jobs like supermarket assistants will be taken by people with greater experience, need and flexibility. Never mind any increased reliance on the bank of mum and dad, the result could be a rise in mental health problems and higher drop-out rates.

With the World Health Organisation reporting infection rates across Europe now reaching similar levels to the peak in March and tough lockdown restrictions reimposed on ten million people across the UK, the hopes of a “V-shaped” economic recovery have all but gone. Until yesterday, Scottish Covid hospitalisation numbers remained low but then jumped from 52 to 61 and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made it clear yesterday this is expected to rise to French levels where hundreds are in intensive care.

There is no evidence to suggest the virus no longer poses the same danger to the elderly or vulnerable, but neither is there any sign the virus poses a mortal threat to the vast majority of young people even if they are infected.

The problem remains the mixture of the two and if extreme lockdowns, which damage the learning and personal development for the young, and crippling government expenditure, which crushes the national economy, are to be avoided then the imperative is to sort out the testing system to narrow the need for further oppressive restrictions on liberty.

Testing is being overseen by Baroness Dido Harding, who swatted away widely reported criticism that the system cannot cope when cross-examined at Thursday’s science and technology select committee. Despite an apparently polished and composed performance, evidence suggests otherwise, and her suitability for the role was questioned after her time as chief executive of Talk Talk ended in disaster when details of 150,000 customers were hacked which cost the company £77m and a £400,000 fine.

A member of ex-PM David Cameron’s inner circle now being cruelly exposed in Sasha Swire’s rollocking diary of life inside Number 10, a fast economic recovery relies on her ability to live up to health secretary Matt Hancock’s praise for her “fantastic leadership” and sort out the mess that testing appears to have become. But as health is devolved the Scottish Government can’t totally absolve itself from any responsibility for improving the system and it’s incumbent on both governments to genuinely work together to crack the problems before total lockdown has to return. Thousands of new undergraduates would raise a Jaegerbomb to that.

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