All eyes are on vaccination, but testing failures must not be forgotten

The Andrew Marr Show 07/06/2020 Andrew Marr is joined by Matt Hancock

In my own small way, I was caught out by the closing of the borders the weekend before Christmas. Matt Hancock ran around Britain’s TV and radio studios telling stunned presenters and audiences that Covid-19 was “out of control” in London and the South-East. That’s the modern-day equivalent of screaming it from the rooftops. It is rumoured that Johnson ordered Hancock to over-eggnog his announcement, to quell an anticipated rebellion from his back-benchers against stricter anti-Covid-19 measures. Whether that is true or not, Hancock’s hype had consequences even a lowly two-dimensional chess-player should have foreseen. Unfortunately, our four-dimensional chess-playing government, aided and abetted by its rag-tag army of super-forecasters, was completely caught off guard.

Twenty-four hours later, over 40 countries world-wide had closed their borders to the UK. These included several EU countries, supposedly prevented from exercising their sovereignty in this way by being ‘shackled’ to the EU. This myth has persisted amongst Brexiters, despite TV programmes like ‘Border Control: Spain’ and ‘Border Control: Europe’ on Britain’s Quest channel (number 12 on Freeview). Indeed, the first country to close its borders to the UK was the Netherlands, with Belgium among the very next to follow suit. (Both the Netherlands and Belgium receive the BBC, so they will have seen Hancock on the Andrew Marr show.)

These countries were absolutely right to close their borders to us. After all, Hancock had said the virus was out of control in zones of the country that include our biggest transport, passenger and cargo hubs – Heathrow and Dover – because a new strain of Covid-19 had evolved in Kent that, although no more virulent, was 70 per cent more transmissible. All viruses mutate, but it is important to control the advance of new forms of a virus, because they pose a risk that vaccines will not be as effective as they could be. Our government reacted in exactly the same way, on public health grounds, when the Danes announced, back in October, that the ‘mink mutation’ had jumped between species and was now infecting humans. We closed our borders to Denmark.

France was only the sixth country to close its borders to the UK, but my goodness, the hatred unleashed against it and the hostility thrown at its president, Emmanuel Macron, by the British tabloids was a sight to behold. According to them, France was punishing us for becoming a sovereign, independent nation once more. (Of course, the UK has always been a sovereign, independent nation, even when in the EU, as the Act of Parliament triggering Article 50 of the European Treaty stated in its preamble, but the tabloid crowd is still high on Brexit delusions…)

The UK government was caught with its pants down. Thousands of lorries, many operated by foreign drivers, were caught in horrific queues. Brexiters claiming we were ready for no-deal Brexit were caught in their web of lies. Our government couldn’t cope. It was left to Sikh charities (like KhalsaAid, LangarAid and Guru Nanak Gurdwara), the Salvation Army using food donated by Prêt à Manger, Hungarians in the UK, Ramsgate Football Club and other kind souls locally to feed the hapless lorry drivers. Meanwhile, Brexity types bawled that it was all France’s fault for controlling their borders and lamented that Kent had been turned into a giant urinal. Eventually France sent firemen and Poland sent medics to administer Covid-19 tests to the drivers so that they could cross the border and drive home for Christmas. Once again, the UK government was left looking foolish and inept on the world stage.

This is where I come in, for I was on the other side of the border, in Paris. I had gone there on 17 December to take care of formalities for becoming resident in France before the 31 December deadline. That’s when I and 67 million other Brits lost our automatic right to travel to and establish residency in the EU. (Brexiters have been telling me to f*** off to the EU for four and a half years, so now I have…)

France is experimenting with a different set of measures to control the pandemic. You can leave home and be out for work, exercise, shopping and so on, if you need to be, between the hours of 06.15 and 20.00, but outside of those times there is a curfew. If you have to go out at any time between 20.00 and 06.15 the next day, you must prepare an attestation explaining which of the permitted reasons you are relying on to break curfew. Cafés, bistros and restaurants remain closed, but supermarkets are doing a roaring trade, and there are no shortages.

Walking around my quartier, I noticed there appears to be near-one hundred per cent compliance with mask-wearing rules. Only when in the nearby woods and parks, where humans are few and far between, do people remove them. Despite how populous the quartier is, people try their best to respect social distancing norms. What made the greatest impression on me though were the pop-up tents outside of pharmacies offering walk-in Covid-19 testing by antigen test. The turnaround time for results is a mere 15-minutes and the tests are free of charge.

Photo of French street Covid-19 test site by the author

This was so different to the situation I confronted at home in the UK when I returned for the Christmas break to gather up the other half of my belongings to take back to France. Understandably spooked by our new ‘out of control’ Kent mutation, the French authorities imposed a new requirement for entry. This is a doctor’s certificate of a negative Covid-19 test, at most 72 hours before arrival in the country. There was a preference for a PCR test, but if this was not possible, France provided a list of 47 approved antigen tests.

‘PCR’ stands for polymerase chain reaction test. This form of testing is considered the ‘gold standard’ in Sars-Cov-2 detection, as it detects genetic material that is specific to the virus and can do so within days of infection, even in those who have no symptoms. The downside is that it must be sent to a lab for processing, which can introduce several days’ delay into the process. An antigen test, frequently referred to as a rapid test, detects protein fragments specific to the coronavirus. Turnaround times are swift, as quick as 15 minutes in some cases, like those offered on-demand for free in countries like Denmark, France and Spain.

In the UK you can get a free test by appointment from a network of private providers, (like Serco and Sitel badged as the NHS test and trace) under certain circumstances. These are if you are symptomatic or have been in contact with someone who is, or have been requested to get a test by a public authority – people scheduled to go to hospital to have an operation, for example. The experience with these tests is highly variable. For every satisfied customer, there’s someone with a nightmare story to tell.

The Dorset-based sister of a dear friend recounted her difficulty obtaining a test locally for her child. The family was fortunate in that they only had to travel 14 miles from Portland to Dorchester, but when they arrived, there was a problem and the test could not be administered. Driving back, they passed a testing site in Weymouth, only a couple of miles from where they live. They pulled in to enquire about a test, and were informed the facility had been up and running for a couple of months, but nobody had come for a test. Day in, day out, they had been there, manning their post, not giving any tests during one of the worst pandemics this country has ever known. Unfortunately, they couldn’t test the child, as tests were by appointment only… The family returned home to book a test at the Weymouth site using the official test and trace website, but despite several attempts, the Weymouth site did not come up as an option.

Even MPs have not been spared the vagaries of the testing system. Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North, related that when she had to organise a test for her school-girl daughter, the closest one the system offered was in Scotland. MP after MP has brought up the deficiencies of the testing system in the House of Commons, only to be told by the PM and government ministers that they’re being negative and talking down the superlative achievements of those involved in testing.

This would be a more convincing line from our scrutiny-averse and feedback-intolerant government, had it not indulged in the distortion of testing data. Earlier last year it emerged that government was counting tests sent, not tests taken, and was sending multiple tests to single recipients and including tests reported as faulty in the totals. Why did it do this? It was a childish and dishonest attempt to inflate the totals so it could claim success in achieving the unrealistic targets it kept setting itself. Then for months only partial testing data was made available to the public. I for one will never trust data that has been parsed by our government ever again.

What of those not covered by the situations that permit a free NHS test? You can purchase home-test kits. I’m reliably informed there’s a Swiss-made one for £12, but for those of us not used to applying nasal swabs for medical testing, there’s the risk we will not insert it far enough (beyond the pain threshold) for the test to be effective. Furthermore, if you need to provide a doctor’s certificate to fulfil another country’s entry requirements – which, since Matt Hancock’s verbal incontinence on the talkies, we all do – then self-testing using a home kit is not an option. That’s where we enter the Wild West of Testing.

My relief at hearing France would allow resident Brits back into the country before January 1st (when a blanket-ban on third-country nationals entering the EU came into force to fight the transmission of Covid-19) was quickly tempered by the need to organise a test. Not an easy thing to do in Dorset over the Christmas period. I found two doctors’ practices, one in Dorchester, the other in Bournemouth, offering tests for travellers on a semi-on-demand basis (you had to have an appointment), but the costs were shocking for someone coming from a country where tests are free. A PCR test was going to set me back £199, or an antigen test £99. Unfortunately, while I waited to hear back from the Bournemouth practice, which was closer, all the slots at the Dorchester practice filled. The stress mounted.

By Monday, 28 December, 48 hours before I was due to travel back to France, I had still not heard from the Bournemouth practice. Then I found a doctor in the neighbouring county of Hampshire, at Winchester, offering a test for £225. The one-hour train journey would add a further £36 to the cost. I considered myself lucky. People on Twitter were telling me they had paid up to £499 for PCR tests, and had to undertake a major journey to take them. Talk about being fleeced. Although French people aren’t charged for PCR tests, the state reimburses laboratories €73.59 (£66.54) a test. Equivalent prices in Italy, Germany and Spain are €59 (£53.34), €50.50 (£45.21) and €30-45 (£27.12 – £40.69) respectively.

In the event, the Bournemouth practice got back to me, and I was able to take an antigen test at a drive-through site at Bournemouth Airport, only 7 miles away from where I live, at a cost of £99. I travelled back to France with the rest of my belongings on 30 December without a hitch.

While I’m not hostile to the idea of those needing tests for travel having to pay something for the privilege, even if it’s essential travel because you’re moving to a different country (rather than elective ‘two weeks of winter sun’ travel), UK prices are ridiculous. This is pure profiteering, par for the course in the spivocracy the UK has become. The reason tests are not offered for free in this country, unlike EU countries, is because our government chose to squander £22 billion of taxpayers’ money on a poor performing test and trace function run by private sector pals, instead of pumping that money into beefing up existing NHS test and trace capability, already tried, tested and honed by years of dealing with AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Of course, lack of free on-demand testing is the least of the reasons we should be angry with our government for spraying that £22 billion at Dido Harding’s test and trace fiasco. In the absence of a vaccine, test and trace was supposed to be our way out of severe measures to control the spread of the virus. Above all, it was supposed to help us avoid the catastrophe of a second or third wave as bad as the first, to protect our frontline and key workers, and to make it safe for our kids to go to school. Now that we are experiencing a third wave that is even worse than the first, we should all be demanding that our government be held to account for its costly misadventure in the privatisation of test and trace activities. In the euphoria over the roll-out of vaccines, we must not forget this extravagant failure.