It’s almost unimaginable that government can screw covid testing up so badly. The greatest weakness of Britain’s strategy from the start has been testing and we’ve always known that autumn would hail a new set of covid challenges which would require a functional testing regime tackle it – yet here we are wholly unprepared and once again plunged into crisis.
So many of Boris Johnson’s wildest promises have involved testing. He said we had a ‘world class’ testing regime and back in March he promised 3.5 million antibody tests ‘within days’. None of it was true.
I’ve never underestimated the scale of challenge faced by ministers, yet expecting them to learn from their mistakes is entirely reasonable. But they haven’t. They’ve wasted months and unbelievably we’re in a worse position on testing today than we were at the beginning of summer.
This is the problem: rather than building lab and testing infrastructure into the NHS, government bought in testing from the private sector. Private contractors only provided what was needed at the time and government figured if they needed more they would simply buy more. But when that moment came the capacity wasn’t there. If they’d expanded the lab capacity within the NHS they’d have known precisely what was possible and what more was needed in terms of expansion, but they didn’t. Failures like this always have decisions at their root, these things don’t just happen.
So what was available nationwide has been reallocated to the areas of greatest need.
That means our testing facilities in Brighton and Hove have been reduced and areas with spikes in contagion have had it increased. The AMEX testing centre has gone and the Withdean temporary test site is no longer taking walk-in patients, you have book via the central booking site…but you guessed it, they’re not allowing any new bookings there as they can’t process the backlog let alone cope with new tests.
The impact on our city is profound. As you can see from the chart I’ve posted here, the number of people testing positive has risen sharply. Last Thursday the number of people testing positive was as high as during lockdown but worryingly this is on the back of far fewer people being tested. That’s the real worry, because in much of the country there is so little testing being done that we simply don’t know if contagion is spreading or not. If it is we won’t know until it’s too late.
The impact on individual residents is also profound. I’ve heard from many, many of you about your experiences in recent days. It is shocking.
I’ve heard from a resident who was forced to drive to Swansea with his kids to get them tested. I’ve spoken to a local home care worker who has mild symptoms and is not being paid until she gets tested, yet simply cannot get a test even after driving to Withdean Stadium and begging staff.
And I hesitate before writing this because I’m desperate not to alarm parents, but I’ve also spoken to many of the people running our schools locally and they are finding tests impossible to get. One school principle has had twelve staff members return home to self isolate in the last three days. Another was tested six days ago and is still waiting for results and yet another actually drove to Bradford with his kids in the car to get a test because he so desperately wanted to get the all-clear to return to school to be there for students.
Every school is doing its very best. The level of effort teachers, staff, cleaners, and school leaders are putting in is almost overwhelming. Schools are doing everything that’s asked of them, but government is letting them down. As one local principle told me today, it’s a “disgrace of epic proportions”. I agree.
In our region the backlog is so acute that they’re simply not testing anyone – that’s why places like Withdean Stadium are practically empty despite the need – because labs are overwhelmed by the backlog.
Yet this isn’t a static problem, it’s about to get more challenging. We have two universities in our city and in the coming fortnight tens of thousands of students will come from across the UK to live here. This would be fine if we could test students, even a significant sample, to detect any contagion early.
I tabled an official parliamentary question to health ministers about this issue last week, asking what was being done to test students in areas where testing has been de-prioritised. The answer I got left me slack-jawed: “It will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period” – students arrive next week and they need more time to think about it. Unbelievable. You can see this for yourself, I’ve posted my question here.
I’ve spoken to the local authority, ministers, and I’m doing everything I possibly can to get this sorted. I’ve tried my best for the dozens of people who’ve contacted me with heartbreaking situations. But I have to be honest, it’s really, really hard being an MP in this situation because ministers continue to show such rank incompetence that I’m demanding tests from them that simply do not exist or the capacity to process them does not exist. The capacity isn’t there because of the decisions they took and continue to take. But I won’t give up trying.
This is a public health crisis and yet another national embarrassment. Britain is sending tests to Germany and Italy to be processed, no one is sending tests to Britain! At the same time Boris Johnson is obsessed with leaving the EU on the harshest terms possible but almost certainly hasn’t considered the fact that if we leave without a deal we won’t be able to send anything to Italy let alone covid tests.
I hear your anger on this, I share your your anger, and I give you my word that I’m doing everything I can to get the tests back into our city that we need and to hold government to account for the rank incompetence that led us into this dire situation. All I care about is the health and wellbeing of our community and country, I’ll do anything to get this fixed and get key workers back to work safely.