For the sixteenth consecutive day, we go live to 10 Downing Street for the daily coronavirus press conference.
“Good afternoon prime minister/health secretary/foreign secretary/chief medical officer/senior NHS management bod/dog/cat/off-duty police officer/inanimate lectern-based object. My question is the same as it has been for the last two weeks. Why is Germany doing more than a half a million coronavirus tests a week and we still haven’t managed to reach our target of 10,000 a day?”
“Well thank you, Mr or Mrs Blurry Head from the BBC/ITV/Guardian/Beano/Dandy/Razzle/Nuts magazine. May I just say how nice your kitchen is?
“On the subject of testing, testing is very important in fighting the spread of coronavirus. Testing allows us to know who has coronavirus and who doesn’t, so it is important that we ramp up testing in the days and weeks ahead. Next we have a question from AN Other Pixelated Face With Camera Pointed Up Nostrils from Sky/Channel 4 News/Bravo +1/Glamour/Vogue/Pigeon Racing Weekly.”
“Yes, thanks. Why aren’t we doing as many tests as Germany?”
“With regard to testing, all countries are different. France borders six other countries. Germany was founded in 1871 and its first official chancellor was Otto von Bismarck. Russia is very big. Liechtenstein is very small. Testing for Covid-19 is an important step in slowing the spread of the epidemic, and the UK is testing thousands of people every day. Next we have a question from…”
I think you get the idea. Tuesday was the same as Monday, same as Sunday, Saturday, yesterday, next week, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Why Germany is testing hundreds of thousands of people and the UK simply isn’t, weeks after the World Health Organisation issued a simple three-word instruction – “Test, test, test” – is a question to which almost every member of the government and every senior scientific and medical advisor has declined to provide an answer at several dozen times of asking.
On Tuesday, we would learn that there are “different types” of test. One for if you’ve got it; one that shows whether or not you’ve ever had it. There are blood tests, swab tests, antibody tests, serological tests, every kind of test. Some are more reliable than others, so we can’t rush into anything. On Monday, Dominic Raab genuinely said the words “no test is better than a bad test”, which several hundred scientific researchers took somewhere around two minutes to say was palpably untrue. (Even a test for whether a person has or has not had coronavirus that is 50 per cent reliable will dramatically halt the spread of coronavirus compared to no testing at all.)
Keeping track of all the various types of test, what they might do, when they might be available, how we might get our hands on them (it is now two weeks since government advisors said they would be available on Amazon “within days” – they are not on Amazon), has become such a dizzyingly complex puzzle that it appears to have had some success in rendering people unable to see the clarity of what’s right in front of them.
Which is the very straightforward fact that no one from the government can or will say why Germany is doing half a million tests a week and we can’t manage a seventh of that.
On Tuesday, Michael Gove became roughly the eleventh member of the government to be asked that question and not have an answer, and then, in his usual, gentle, never-knowingly-under-obsequious way, turned to the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, and the medical director of NHS England, Stephen Powis, so that they could not have an answer too.
Tomorrow it will be a whole new cast of characters’ turn to dial in and ask the unanswerable question, live from their laptops, and somebody else will dutifully not answer it.
Across the world, as various national shutdowns start to show results in reducing levels of infection, the growing suspicion appears to be that no one has much of an exit strategy, a plan for how to return to normal life, sharing the planet with a killer virus that, as things stand, very much has the upper hand over humanity.
We can only assume that that is the government’s exit strategy regarding this somewhat less severe problem – of how to make the same question, asked every day, time after time, go away without ever actually answering it.
All the graphs show that the next few weeks are about to get as terrible as almost anything within the country’s living memory. Perhaps the testing question will not survive it.
For now, there certainly doesn’t appear to be any other plan.