British test and trace and scientific experts

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.

5 thoughts on “British test and trace and scientific experts”

  1. This prompts a good news update from me. Yesterday I did monitoring at one of the schools where I am a governor and I found out their online live learning programme is working really well. We are on 50% live lessons, and children and teachers are finding them very exciting. Basically our Head and Academy Trust ignored the Union grumbling and just got on with it, even though some of the teachers were reticent, and now everyone is loving it (even though it is draining to deliver and prepare).
    I have just detailed this to the leaders at the school where I work and hope that we can use this model.
    There are no other schools in the area doing this yet, and it was your thoughts on lack of ambition that reminded me of this. We do default to lack of ambition in this country, a fear that we can’t get things done. There is no central push or organisation, at Local Authority level or central government level, the iidealised model is that we are left to muddle and get on with things, learning through “networking” ie word of mouth. Leadership is weak in the UK at the moment. There is no innovation, no deep thinking through of our own idea of doing things, as you say, we are just following. With the science, it’s a bit like my situation at work. I am the data manager, so I can provide solutions to what people want, but I have to know what they want. Sometimes my senior leaders say “We want X” and my initial reaction is often “No way! I can’t do that!” but after a bit of thinking I usually can. Whereas if it were up to me, I would probably be happy to stick with what I am doing and not expand or be ambitious.

    1. That is so great Denise! Live online lessons are so much better than printed handouts. I hope more schools start to do it because even if schools reopen next week it’s not going to be full time and online classes are going to have to continue in some form into the future.

      I think as a nation we’ve become too complacent like the big corporation that thinks it has cornered the market only to watch a new startup come along and take away all its customers but by the time it realises what’s happening it’s too late. It’s easy to continue with the status quo but we can’t do that right now and watching the government respond has been a bit like watching a snail traverse the back yard.

      1. That made me smile and reminds me of schools again! Sometimes I read that OFSTED would like to do away with the Outstanding rating but there is too much pressure to keep it. Most schools I have seen get Outstanding start to take the attitude that they are amazing and they don’t need to try any more – they are “the best”. My kids went to a school that eventually ended up in special measures – they were convinced they were the best because once upon a time they had been, and if other schools were doing things differently, that was because they were wrong. But yes the UK is still in denial about other countries catching up and passing us by and I’m not sure how that can change.

      2. Yes, that’s exactly it! When we think we’re the best at everything there’s a danger we’ll stop progressing and very quickly we risk becoming the worst as others overtake us. I think the current crisis is a bit of a wakeup call for Britain. I hope things change for the better after this especially for the NHS which has been underfunded for years.

  2. It seems to be fairly normal to cock things up in the name of financial interests, eh? When we look back at how well crises or events have been handled, how often do we see a cock up due to not taking expert advice, but siding with those who have a financial stake? As far as Covid-19 goes, NZ has managed it well, but my understanding is that out of all the countries in the world we were the 34th most prepared for a crisis like this. Successive govts had allowed us to be under-prepared to save money, probably to appease corporations who wanted to pay less tax. NZ had little option but to take stringent measures, but – fingers crossed – it appears to have helped us dodge a bullet this time. Conversely, the USA was the best prepared in the world, and the UK was second-best, but neither country managed it well.

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