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Editorial: A rational, scientific policy of testing and tracing is what’s needed

THE Covid-19 crisis is challenging every element of our country’s infrastructure with new pressures. 

The health system is critically dependent on the continued health and operational efficiency of its workforce, who have been subjected to intolerable pressures. 

If repeated in the coming winter months, this will expose even more clearly the desperate inadequacies of a policy, stealthily intensified during the pandemic, of privatising key functions.

The serial failures of the government’s test-and-trace system are increasingly evident. 

Boris Johnson — already reduced to inarticulate impotence by the punishment handed out by Ed Miliband — is finding it increasingly difficult to find arguments to explain failure or the rhetoric to obscure this reality.

The public, who early on grasped the importance of infection control measures with greater understanding than politicians anticipated, are clearly losing confidence in the government’s ability or commitment to handle this crisis with competence.

The driving principle behind much of the advice from the Independent SAGE group of scientists and specialists centres on the necessity of a national planned approach.

These experts warn that this virus will most likely remain in circulation for the foreseeable future and that without a comprehensive vaccination programme that could generate a measure of herd immunity, the overriding imperative is to minimise new transmissions.

They argue that the alternative to renewed lockdowns and the associated economic damage and human distress that shutting down economic and social life entails is a wider testing strategy than at present, combined with fast, supportive and effective isolation for those affected.

The key to understanding the necessity of an effective test-and-trace system is that around half of people infected with Covid-19 remain asymptomatic, with children and young people especially so.

The SAGE specialists argue it is self-evident that identification of asymptomatic individuals may contribute to such an effective strategy, pointing out that any such approach should focus on those at highest risk, on top of capturing all symptomatic individuals. 

The rational core of this approach — in contrast to the government’s flawed approach which illogically focuses on numbers tested and is hampered by inadequate contact tracing and the difficulty of ensuring that people asked to isolate do so — is to regard testing as a pathway, starting with the individual, community or population being tested.

Contrast this with the bluster and bullshit that marks the government approach.

The government’s ability to devise a coherent and science-based approach is hindered not just by the weakened potential of our public institutions to mobilise the necessary resources and the serial failures of the privatised sectors to match the standards necessary for public confidence but by the individualist ideology that lies at the centre of Conservative thinking.

Faced with the impossibility of reconciling a planned, centrally directed programme of effective infection control with the pressures exerted by big business and commercial interests, this Tory government responds with magical thinking.

There is no “magic bullet,” the “moonshot” is ministerial moonshine. It is not a “world-beating” programme of Johnson’s befuddled imagination that we need but a rational, scientific policy of testing and tracing made in Britain.

This government has neither the will nor the capacity to lead on behaviour change or devise a consistent social-distancing regime.

This places an extra responsibility on Labour to project policies which can enthuse our people with a renewed collective effort.

But it also offers the trade union and labour movement new possibilities to intervene to change the way things are done. 

In a deepening crisis of the system such as the one we are experiencing, it is critical ideas that can change things.

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