Our enemy is not only the virus

The government’s management of its promised ‘world-beating’ test and trace system has been a shambles. However, beneath the incompetence lies a more sinister tale of contracts for government cronies and the stealth privatisation of testing, as Larry Sanders, Green Party Health Spokesperson, explains.

Coronavirus testing
Coronavirus testing

Image: Daniel Foster (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Larry Sanders

Accurate tests with results reported within 24 hours are crucial to avoiding an explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic. A successful testing system makes it possible to keep the period in which the virus spreads to a minimum. Every day that an infected person is in circulation means more people infected, who themselves spread the virus.

In August, England was on the cusp of an exponential increase and the government was urging people back to work and children to school. Everyone knew that there would be an increase in infections and of fear of infection. This meant that the demand for testing would increase sharply. Unfortunately, the only people who didn’t predict that and prepare for it were the people in charge, including the ‘tsar’, Dido Harding. The Guardian on 18 September reported that Ms Harding admitted that “demand was up to four times capacity, while 90 per cent of tests were failing to hit the 24-hour turnaround target.” Professor John Ashton, a former public health director, said “people sicken and die and it spreads…”

Most of the people who are failed have symptoms or have been in contact with people who have the disease. This includes people with priority for testing because they are health or social care workers in intimate contact with the most vulnerable people.

The prime minister has now increased restrictions aimed at reducing transmission. The most dubious is allowing pubs to open until 10pm. Pubs are precisely the locale for spreading and this will be barely, if at all, affected by the short reduction in opening times.

This preamble reveals several of the reasons that we are at serious risk of the pandemic getting out of control with unnecessary death, illness and destitution. Ms Harding was appointed without any visible qualification or competition. The largest part of the testing capacity is run by private companies, themselves contracted with little evidence of competence.

The UK has an impressive history of success in public health. Instead of building on the existing trained public health and local government institutions the government created new and separate structures to find people who needed to be tested, to carry out the tests, to analyse the tests, to find out who had been in contact, to find those people and to isolate all those who were likely to be carrying the virus. All this could have been done better by the NHS (particularly GPs), public health institutions and local government; all of whom have relevant training and are deeply embedded in their communities.

The lucrative contracts to cronies, companies with a history of fraud and failure and Conservative Party funders, has attracted heavy criticism. The criticism and the constant failure have not daunted the government. The initial funding was £10 billion to the private companies and £300 million to the public bodies. Johnson has now decided to go for mass testing to be organised by management consultants Deloitte at a cost of £100 billion. (The entire NHS costs about £130 billion a year.) The tests themselves will be paid for by the individuals who want to be tested. This is a huge substitution of private control for public and for charges which are against the whole NHS ethos.

Johnson and his allies have a long history of disdain for public provision, and particularly for the NHS. They are inserting their friends into major places in the life of the country with the gift of countless billions of public money.

The current failure of the testing system for Covid-19 is a symptom of an historic change for the worse in the governance of the country. The Green Party has worked to an entirely different vision. We see our institutions run democratically, devolved to localities and working for everyone in our society. The battle for democracy and against authoritarianism and corruption is joined. Our enemy is not only the virus.