When the leading US Democrat Nancy Pelosi launched a stinging attack on Donald Trump over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, saying “as the President fiddles, people are dying”, one of her key complaints was about the low level of testing for Covid-19.
More than 831,000 people in the US have been tested, according to the Covid Tracking Project in the US, with 98 per cent taking place after 14 March when Pelosi and Trump struck a deal over improved measures to tackle the outbreak, but she complained on Sunday that “we still don’t have adequate testing”.
While this has become a major political issue in the US, the UK has not seen the same level of outrage – even though it has tested about 127,000 people, significantly less than the US figure, even relative to population size.
If the low level of testing in the US is a scandal, should it not be one here too? After all, no less an authority than the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said earlier this month: “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”
The UK is currently testing about 10,000 people a day and is aiming to increase this to 25,000, rolling out a programme for NHS workers in particular, but Germany is estimated to be carrying out up to 500,000 tests a week, or more than 70,000 a day.
The case for mass testing is simple. In order to stop an infectious disease, it’s important to know who has it. If someone shows signs of the disease and this is then confirmed by a test, people they have been in contact with can then be tested, quite literally tracking down the virus one person at a time.
It is an expensive and time-consuming process, and there are problems with the supply of test kits, but the scale of the disparity between the UK and Germany is stark and shocking. We should be able to do as well as they can. This is not an optional extra, it will save lives.
Negative test results are also hugely beneficial. There will be, right now, scores of people who are self-isolating because they genuinely think they have coronavirus or suspect they might do, when in fact they do not. These are people who could be working to help keep the economy on the rails, which is always important but is even more so in the fight against Covid-19, especially if it remains a threat for months to come.