Now we must ramp up testing to free us from Covid-19 – Jayne Dowle

I AGREE with Jonathan Ashworth, the Shadow Health Secretary, who argues that we should not undermine the Government’s efforts at a time of national crisis.

A paramedic wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) outside a hospital as concerns grow about the testing of NHS staff and patients for Covid-19.

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With senior figures, including the Prime Minister himself, laid low with the Covid-19 virus, it’s clear that Ministers are becoming overwhelmed with the sheer scale of the task.

Concerns over testing for Covid-19, and supply of PPE equipment, is overshadowing the Government's response to the coronavirus crisis.

There’s so much to think about – the provision of correct protective wear for NHS staff, building new field hospitals, keeping the food chain going, ensuring financial support for those who need it, keeping the message of ‘stay home, save lives’ uppermost in the public mind… the list goes on and on.

However, above all, the priority should be to test the population to establish who is suffering from ‘live’ coronavirus and who has developed antibodies, either because they have had it already or possess natural immunity.

Without widescale and accurate testing, we have no way of measurement. At the very least, testing is a vital epidemiological tool. It will give the scientists the numbers they need to accurately measure the scale and spread of the Covid-19 strain. In turn, this should inform the Government on where to focus resources.

And even the availability of a reliable test will help to soothe public anguish. Has ever a nation suffered from such a state of collective anxiety? Unless you are one of the 143,186 people tested so far (according to official Government figures, published on March 31) you are probably checking yourself daily for signs, or puzzling if that bad bout of flu you had in January was actually Covid-19 in disguise.

Work is taking place to convert Harrogate Conference Centre into a makeshift Nightingale field hospital.

If you do develop apparent symptoms, there’s no clear way to find out for sure unless you are deemed a priority. This is leading to some very nasty social divisions when really we should all #bekind, as the slogan goes. It’s also adding to the acute sense of fear.

My parents’ neighbour, who has been kindly helping us with shopping, spent last week suffering with a cough and nasal congestion. She ‘thinks’ it was just a heavy cold. Nevertheless, until recently, she was handing bags of groceries over the fence to my 76-year-old mother. Such uncertainty is unnerving.

Also, as yet, we have no basis on which to begin to look over the hill and start to think about returning to any kind of normal life, either personally or collectively. Millions of confused people, who could be at work, are self-isolating for 14 days ‘just in case’ or because they are unsure about the health status of a family member.

This state of stasis has huge consequences for the economy at every scale. Yes, we must not undermine government efforts, but get a grip they really must.

On Tuesday, the Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, speaking at the daily Number 10 briefing, agreed that the UK must go “further, faster” to ramp up its testing capacity.

In this, the Government must be scrupulously honest and rigorous, both in the execution of the testing programme and the way it communicates progress to the public.

It’s obvious that immediate priority should be given to those working and volunteering at the sharp end of the NHS. The Government has set a target of carrying out 25,000 tests a day, but admits that this will not be met until the end of April. It’s reported that there are global shortages of the vital chemicals required to create accurate tests and not enough UK laboratories to process results.

Meanwhile the Royal College of Physicians says that as many as a quarter of UK doctors are off work because they are having to self-isolate – either because they are showing symptoms or a member of their household is. A fifth of nurses have been affected, the Royal College of Nursing said, while the British Medical Association said staff began being tested last weekend, but only in low numbers.

Definitely place NHS frontline heroes right at the top of the priority queue, but be aware that every single man, woman and child in the country needs to know their status, too. If we really are ‘all in this together’ as the Prime Minister says, we need to know exactly where we stand.

Some people are even talking of the major parties coming together into a government of national unity so that cross-party efforts and talents can be brought to the fore. This possibility may be given wings this weekend, when the new Labour party leader will be announced.

We shall see. What is clear is that right now, nothing must be written off if it speeds up the scale and delivery of accurate testing to determine who has the Covid-19 virus. Without this we are all stuck – like moths in a jar.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson