There are worrying signs about the UK’s Covid-19 trajectory. The UK’s death toll is now higher than Italy’s was at this stage, and is following the US in accelerating when other countries were by now seeing the rate of increase slowing. ITV Political Editor Robert Peston responded to that fact by stating plainly: “This is not supposed to be happening in the UK, according to ministers and their advisers.” Other grim milestone’s are being met: London’s death toll is higher than Wuhan’s – the origin of the outbreak – at this stage.
Why is the UK failing? Attention is increasingly honing in on the lack of mass community tracing and testing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now said testing is the key to “unlocking the puzzle” and will be “massively ramped up”, but it’s a little late in the day to just be working this out. Shockingly, even the US is testing more per capita than the UK. An internal government briefing note on the question of “Why are you not testing like Germany, as the WHO says?” answers: “When the WHO talks about testing, it is addressing the global system. Not all countries have the same infrastructure as the UK and there are countries the WHO needs to press on testing.” That is, literally, nonsense. In a new paper for the British Medical Journal titled ‘Why is the UK Government ignoring the WHO’s advice?’, Scottish public heath physician Allyson Pollock and two other public health experts say that the UK’s case is “entirely unexceptional”: “The mathematical model used by the UK Government clearly shows that rigorous contact tracing and case finding is effective: the prediction of 250 000 deaths was predicated on what would happen without contact tracing.”
The latest farce reported by Sky News is NHS England and NHS Wales ending up in a scrap over testing kit orders. NHS Wales had secured an order only for it to be cancelled because NHS England had made the bigger order and the company decided to prioritise that. The dispute led to a meeting between Health Ministers’ of all four nations on Friday, which led to Whitehall taking over control of the purchasing of testing kits for the whole of the UK, including Scotland. So now not only does the Scottish Government remain aligned with the UK’s uniquely sluggish strategy, it has apparently lost the means of breaking free of it because it has apparently conceded the power to control the purchasing of testing kits (at least for the time being). Scotland has just broken through the 1,000 tests per day landmark, but at around 300 tests per 100,000 people that is still a long way short of where it needs to be. Plans to ramp up to 3,500 tests per day by the end of the month is an improvement but four weeks is a long time and it will still be short of the testing Germany is doing per capita now.
Here’s a positive. Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and one of the sharpest critics of the UK Government’s response to The Coronavirus Crisis, is on the Scottish Government’s new advisory group after all (she had previously said she wasn’t). Sridhar has written in no uncertain terms about how contact tracing and testing is the only way to prevent the UK going in and out of lockdown repeatedly over the next 12 months or more. The WHO have made this point clear to Italy and Spain: their cases may be falling now, but without community tracing and testing there is not a safe route out of lockdown. If Sridhar and others can push the Scottish Government to do what should have happened across the UK from the start, there’s hope that the strategy could start moving in a sensible direction.