Right when we can’t take our eyes off coronavirus — the testing fiasco is blinding us

Tom Clarke explains just how important Covid-19 testing is

For those waiting for a coronavirus test it’s a massive inconvenience.

For schools, care homes and businesses it could be the difference between staying open and closing.

But the lack of capacity testing is about more than that.

Its widely accepted now that locking down a week earlier back in March could have saved thousands of lives.

The reason we didn’t, is because we weren’t able to gauge the scale of the outbreak because we weren’t able to test.

Testing for Covid-19 is our only way of “seeing” this invisible killer.

We’re in a much better position now.

Cases are at a much lower level than they were back at the height of the outbreak.

Even in worst-hit Bolton, just two in every 1,000 people are currently infected.

But if case numbers start to rise exponentially as they did before, we can go from not many cases to overwhelmed intensive care units in a matter of weeks.

But the only way to tell how badly cases are rising is by using test results from individual people.

But now, people showing symptoms are unable to get a test and the government’s £100 billion “Test and Trace” system is failing.

Pubs and restaurants in Bolton have also been closed, bringing the town back in line with the national restrictions prior to July 4th. Credit: PA

Without data from Test and Trace, the scientists who model the UK’s part of the pandemic are running out of information.

On Wednesday, I spoke to one of those scientists who said they are no longer able to rely on the testing data from the system for their analysis.

“It’s significantly muddying the waters,” they told me. 

Their analysis of weekly data is used to calculate the regional “R” numbers and infection rates in different parts of the country.

This is the same analysis on which the government relies to prioritise the tests available.

That’s a major Catch-22 when right now the government is trying to prioritise testing where it’s needed most. 

Result: our ability to spot local outbreaks where things could be running out of control is being impaired.

Coronavirus cases in the UK are rising. Credit: PA graphics

And it could be even more serious.

The most “reliable” measure of Covid rates in the UK is based on the survey carried out weekly by the Office of National Statistics across tens of thousands of households (planned to expand to 400,000 by next year).

This isn’t subject to the vicissitudes of the test and trace system or whether people have symptoms of the virus or not.

Yet I learned on Wednesday that the ONS survey relies on the same testing labs as the Test and Trace system to analyse its samples.

We won’t know until Friday when their report is published whether the quality of their data has been effected. But if it has, we’re in trouble.