EU Referendum

Covid: the insanity of Johnson


The ridiculous Johnson is so devoid of credibility on just about everything that all he has left is to milk about the only thing left that he feels able to control. Thus, while the Brexit situation continues to deteriorate, he's planning to spend billions of pounds on an insanely extravagent Covid testing programme.

Worse still, this is to be a self-testing programme, employing dubious technology, the main purpose of which seems to be to distract attention from the prime minister's multiple failings in just about every policy area he's ever touched.

Needless to say, officials are being "tight-lipped" about the cost but the Mail estimates that, if 25 million people are foolish enough to take up a "free" test twice a week, the cost could top £1 billion a month – with no end date planned.

The Financial Times goes further, suggesting that the government is preparing to allocate nearly £43 billion to the project, with Public Health England having released a tender worth £22 billion last week.

According to the BMJ, the most likely reason for this particular bit of insanity on the part of Johnson is that hundreds of millions have already been spent on purchasing testing kits, which are now sitting in warehouses throughout the country. Thus, the message has gone out that "they have to be used".

As likely an explanation is that a mass testing programme – itself of dubious validity when an epidemic is on the wane and large numbers of people have been vaccinated – is precisely as I would aver, a massive exercise in displacement activity which enlists the population in a fruitless activity in order to engender a sense of "ownership".

For this purpose, tenders issued are worth more than three times the total spent on police in England and Wales in 2018-19 – a rough indication of where this government's priorities lie.

So far, over a billion of that has been spent, exclusively from companies outside of the UK. This includes £634 million on millions of tests produced by US company Innova, which are manufactured in China, tests which the BMJ says are "not fit for purpose", after trials carried out in Liverpool.

Furthermore, despite government claims that the test is "accurate", detecting 77 percent of those infected, its data come from an unrealistic study using laboratory scientists and experienced nurses running tests on symptomatic people.

In real life, the BMJ notes that in symptomless people it misses the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a substantial proportion. In the Liverpool pilot study, 60 percent of infected symptomless people went undetected, including 33 percent of those with high viral loads who are at highest risk of infecting others.

Among students in Birmingham, only three percent of those who would have tested positive on PCR were detected. At a recent select committee hearing, the Secretary of State for Health appeared uninformed about the reduced accuracy in real life settings of the Innova tests in Public Health England studies and has denied that the Liverpool study showed the test performed poorly.

The government's Test, Trace, and Isolate (TTI) Modelling Group, says the BMJ, includes experts in modelling infectious spread, but with little expertise in evaluation of diagnostic tests or mass testing programmes. This matters because the government is now relying on mathematical models rather than real world evaluations.

But, while Johnson's hard core fan base is probably unshaken by his appalling management of the Covid epidemic – and just about everything else – I sense that this initiative will be treated with disdain by some of population who will probably be reluctant to participate, even if some might be tempted to try the test out once or twice, out of curiosity.

Ultimately, though, with a self-administered test, it will be up to individuals to read their own results, and then to report them on the test and trace app – something many are not likely to do if they are personally disadvantaged or put themselves at financial risk, in the absence of government support.

This, however, is part of another layer of inanity, where Johnson is apparently set on tying this into a "vaccine passport" scheme, with suggestions that it might be extended to record test results.

In fact, it is possible that a "Covid status certificate" – to give it is correct name - would show one of three things: that a person has been vaccinated, a negative result from a lateral flow or PCR test that day or the day before; or have proof of natural immunity, such as a positive PCR test in the past six months.

But, on the basis that access to certain locations will depend on self-administered negative tests being recorded – with no official supervision - the chances are that a large number of negative results will be entered, without tests even having been administered.

Sentiment against these "passports" is already quite hostile in some quarters and, if the government is intending to pass the burden of checking people's Covid status, this may well be resented by hard-pressed businesses, which are now being asked to do the government's dirty work.

One thing here is also going to prove interesting if the system is based largely on ownership of smartphones, and a willingness to download the government's app.

The problem here will be the number of people who do not have these phones, for which the government will have to provide a paper-based system. This would further tax an already stretched system and lay the Johnson wide open to criticisms that he is trying to engineer identity cards by the back door.

Looking at the bigger picture, Johnson has secured the general compliance of the population on the promise that, eventually, the epidemic will be brought under control and things would return to normal. Now, it looks as if, just as we are about to reach that state, Johnson is piling on another requirement, as a price of our freedom.

This is articulated by Tory MP Desmond Swayne who noted that , this time last year the great release was going to be a testing programme. We were going to test ourselves each day before we went out. "That was the first great hope", he says, "that testing would be the release to normality. Now it's back again but in the intervening period haven't we surpassed that?"

Swayne adds: "Isn't vaccination supposed to have provided us with the release? What is the purpose of us testing ourselves each day if the vaccination programme is a success?"

So far, people have had to tolerate lockdowns, fatuous mantras and endless propaganda, social distancing and masks – to say nothing of over-zealous police enforcement (unless your name happens to be Cummings). Then, when we are presented with vaccine as the great escape route, up pops Johnson with a measure which could so easily be interpreted as an attempt to exercise social control.

However, the system is not ready at this time and, in the nature of things, setting up such a comprehensive system is probably beyond the capability of this government, even if it had the full support of the people. And, if Johnson plans on lifting Covid restrictions over term, and then introduces Covid status retrospectively, he might find a significant level of civil disobedience.

Even then, tolerance is probably already strained to the limit and these latest hurdles may prove to be Johnson's Arnhem – a bridge too far.

Also published on Turbulent Times.