There are some letters to the editor in the Guardian about getting a test for Covid-19 in the UK and they sound more like episodes of Little Britain than a “world-beating” testing system. One person went to a drive-through testing facility and was given a testing kit and told to swab her tonsils herself. How can you possibly swab your own tonsils? When the person asked for help they told her there was no one trained on-site to assist. Another couple were treated like criminals for taking a photo of the carpark.
It amazes me that the only two testing options are drive-throughs, which force the need for a car, or a postal system which takes about a week to return the results. Why aren’t there drop-in testing stations in the centre of all cities? South Korea has telephone booth testing stations that people on foot can access to get a test done by a properly trained person.
Since the beginning, the government here has been advised by a group of science advisors called SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). The government has received a lot of criticism of its handling of the pandemic and there have been requests for it to publish the scientific advice on which decisions are being made. Consequently, the minutes of SAGE meetings were recently published online for the world to read.
In a meeting of SAGE from 11th February when there were only 8 confirmed cases in the UK, they say, “It is not possible for the UK to accelerate diagnostic capability to include Covid-19 alongside regular flu testing in time for the onset of winter flu season 2020-21”. It seems they gave up on testing right at the outset. Then on the 18th February, they say, “Currently PHE (Public Health England) can cope with five new cases a week (requiring isolation of 800 contacts).” Again, no ambition whatsoever to try to increase tracing capacity.
I know it’s easy in hindsight to be critical and I realise you can never please everyone but when the country’s top scientific experts give up on testing and tracing so early on it’s hard not to lose a bit of faith in scientific experts. I am a little bit torn when I see scientists in other disciplines critical of SAGE on social media and on TV because this is exactly what happens to climate scientists when people in other disciplines think they know what they’re talking about. My criticism is not with the science though but with the lack of ambition and in many ways, I have the same criticism with climate science. Climate scientists make dire predictions but sometimes fail to translate this into action (there are some exceptions like James Hansen) when they choose to drive polluting cars, fly around the world, and eat meat. Perhaps I’m being unfair but to my mind, if you can see the house is on fire it’s not enough to send a memo with facts like, “Currently PHE can cope with five new cases a week”. This should have been supplemented with, “This needs to be increased to eventually manage 40,000 new cases per week, and here’s what we need to do to get there”.
You could argue that it’s not the job of a scientist to advocate for policy change and that it shouldn’t be left to individual responsibility to solve a problem. I agree that governments need to do far more than they are. However, you can’t go on TV as an expert and explain how your research shows that a low-impact litre of cow’s milk uses almost twice as much land and creates almost double the emissions as soy milk but then answer yes, if, hypothetically speaking, the journalist asks you whether you still drink cow’s milk. Why should anyone take it seriously if you don’t? Governments will only do what the majority of the population wants them to do. Humans are like sheep which is why we have stock market crashes, food stockpiling, and bank runs. People will follow the flock even if it makes no sense to do so.
The government has only now just picked up the pace on testing and tracing due to international embarrassment at how far behind every other country in the world we are. But this has nothing to do with advice from scientific experts and more to do with peer pressure and following the flock.