Now that vaccines are being administered across the UK at astonishing speed, with approximately 2.8 million doses given so far, it’s easy to believe the light at the end of the tunnel is here in the global battle with Coronavirus.
Ideally, it is. The best case scenario is that the vaccine quickly protects everyone who needs it, while reducing the virus’s transmission in the population.
Even better would be if the vaccine provides long-lasting immunity, as opposed to people having to get inoculated on a regular basis (creating a health risk and huge logistical challenge, especially if the virus mutates and new vaccines are needed).
While we find out these details – and we should have some answers over the next few months – there’s been less talk about NHS Test and Trace, and mass testing, the systems the Government has spent enormous sums on to keep the virus at bay while there’s no vaccine.
Paradoxically, as the vaccine roll out gets under way, NHS Test and Trace has become stricter, updating its definition of “close contact” so that users have to log more details of who they’ve been within two metres of.
Not least because the system has been quietly improving, with a record figure of 493,573 contacts identified in the week ending December 30 – up from 407,685 the previous week. In short, this will lead to an increase in the number of people who need to self-isolate.
The Government is also devoting huge resources to mass testing, with Matt Hancock announcing on Sunday morning a programme of “lateral flow” devices to help detect asymptomatic cases.
A total of 317 English local authorities will be able to deliver this, with the army deployed to Bolton to help next week. Pilot schemes are also being used by businesses, such as John Lewis and others in manufacturing, retail and food.
While these systems aren’t perfect – there are still lots of criticisms around their capabilities – the point is that they’re being developed and improved, in spite of the vaccine, which is celebrated as our get out option. So why is this the case?
The first explanation is simply that the Government needs every resource possible right now to fight the mutant variant of Coronavirus. Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, has warned that we’re about to go into the worst weeks for the NHS, so it’s no wonder that we’re readying multiple systems.
Then there are more depressing long-term considerations, such as whether the vaccine runs into trouble. Perhaps immunity does not last as long as we thought it would, or a new strain of the virus comes along for which there is no vaccine yet, and so forth. This is when Plan B, C, D, E and a whole alphabet of other options becomes vital.
Worse still, there could be another pandemic in the future. That’s why the Government can better justify spending eye-watering sums on this infrastructure, which we may be grateful for later.
The difficulty with all this is that the Government has had to build testing infrastructure while we’re in a pandemic, as opposed to before, so it has discovered flaws in its systems in the worst possible way, perhaps part of why test and trace has cost £22 billion.
No doubt there will eventually be questions about why it – along with many other governments – lacked preparedness in this area, unlike South Korea and Taiwan, who had contact tracing in place. Yes, they built their systems in response to MERS and SARS, respectively, but the signs were there to the international community that this infrastructure was worth considering.
Either way, the focus on testing isn’t going away any time soon.