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The Tory government is ploughing enormous resources into mass testing, promising £100 billion for 'Operation Moonshot', equivalent to 70% of the usual annual NHS resource budget. The majority of funding is being funnelled into private companies carrying out the tests.
Mass testing, sufficiently accurate and used effectively, could be an important tool in the response to the pandemic. But how effective are the tests, and how does mass testing fit with the rest of the government's Covid strategy?
Having been trialled in Liverpool, the government's version of mass testing is being rolled out to further communities, including the possibility of workplace testing. So far, there has not been a proper evaluation of the effectiveness of the programme in Liverpool made public.
The lateral flow test used as part of the scheme needs a swab that has been pushed up both nostrils from each individual. In the main, swabbing is done by the individuals themselves. Meanwhile, the testing process is being carried out by what the government call "experienced" staff, but who, in reality, have had just an hour's training by video.
Despite assertions about the accuracy of the test, the accuracy of results fall within a very wide range. In Liverpool, tests captured just 58% of those with Covid-19. Accuracy of testing is much higher when the samples are obtained, and the tests are done, by clinical experts. Accuracy rises to 79% when done by laboratory scientists.
The government and bosses want to use mass testing as a means to get workers back to work as soon as possible, cutting self-isolation times, and maintaining the fiction that workplaces are 'Covid secure'.
There is a danger that mass testing can give the illusion of safety and false reassurance to those who test negative. All safety measures including social distancing, face coverings, good ventilation and good hygiene continue to be vital for safety, and are often absent from workplaces.
Mass testing in Liverpool had a varying degree of take up. The lowest take up was in the poorest communities, where workers cannot afford to self-isolate because of the impact on their pay. Self-isolation is an effective way to stop the spread and must not be curtailed. All workers, including those on limited-hours contracts, must receive full pay and face no detriment from annual leave or sickness absence recording.
More accurate testing, carried out by trained professionals, as part of a publicly owned system, and under the democratic control of workers and the trade unions, could play a vital role in tackling the pandemic. But it also needs to be combined with full pay for those isolating, and resources provided to ensure all safety measures are carried out in our workplaces and communities.
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Article dated 16 December 2020
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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