The news that millions of tests for the coronavirus may be available within days is the first bit of good news to emerge from this crisis. Prof Sharon Peacock, the director of the national infection service at Public Health England, told the Commons science and technology committee yesterday that mass testing in the UK might be possible by next week, though its efficacy still had to be validated. The country will be praying that her confidence is justified.
The Government has bought 3.5 million new tests which will be used for critical workers, including the NHS staff who are self-isolating with symptoms. The Government is ordering millions more to be delivered to people with mild illness.
People will then know they have coronavirus and can function normally when they have recovered or if they are immune. The Prince of Wales is among those who has tested positive already and is self-isolating with what are described as “mild” symptoms. A further test for antibodies is also said to be close. These scientific developments will not stop a spike in serious cases that are already expected to grow rapidly in the coming days and peak in about a fortnight.
Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London, told MPs he believed the NHS would now have the capacity to cope nationally but there would be “extreme stress” in some areas, notably London. A widely available antibody test would, in the words of Boris Johnson, be a “game changer”. It would not stop people getting the virus but those who had some immunity would no longer threaten others. If there is a peak of infections early next month and widespread testing, the Government can begin to scale back the lockdown measures sooner than expected, boosting national morale.
It will also allow greater clarity on the progress of the disease. The Government has been guided by a model created by Imperial College, which predicted hundreds of thousands of deaths if nothing was done. But a new study by researchers at Oxford University suggests that millions already have the virus asymptomatically and fewer than one in a thousand of those infected become ill enough to need hospital treatment.
If that is true it has significant implications for public policy, whose aim cannot be to reduce new cases to zero but to try to reopen the country to business in a managed way while protecting the vulnerable. Mass testing is the way through.