The government’s grandiose gestures are no substitute for competence on the basicsby Philip Ball / September 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
If anything close to normal life is to resume in the absence of a vaccine against coronavirus—and indeed, probably even after that is available—large-scale and effective testing for infection is vital. Only then will hospital staff and care workers know if it is safe for them to go to work, and where to put new patients. Only with a secure testing strategy in place can we hope to avoid further massive disruptions in work and education, to feel safe about traveling (for example with mandatory testing at airports), and to distinguish seasonal sniffles from something potentially much worse.
All this demands not just that the capacity for Covid-19 testing be expanded way beyond what is currently available, but also that tests are cheap, reliable and fast. So an announcement by the UK government at the start of September earmarking £500m for boosting the development of on-the-spot rapid-testing technology could sound like good news. And it now seems that an eye-watering £100bn—an amount greater than half of the annual NHS budget—might be allocated for “Operation Moonshot,” a programme that could screen the entire population, conducting around 10m tests a day by early 2021 by harnessing these putative new technologies.
You might expect that these ambitious schemes would be welcomed by health officials, scientists and businesses. But neither announcement has gone down well at all. “It is hard not to feel this ‘moonshot’ has wildly missed the moon,” Alan McNally, professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, wrote in the British Medical Journal. McNally, who helped set up one of the “Lighthouse labs,” the rapidly established backbone of the national Covid-19 diagnostic testing programme, in Milton Keynes, confessed that “I find it hard to understand the logic behind the government’s new strategy.”
Behavioural scientist Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews, who has advised the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) on the Covid-19 response, was even more blunt. “The ‘moonshot’ feels like one of those vanity projects most associated with minor dictators,” he tweeted. “It is a narcissist’s dream of grandeur and legacy. It provides something you don’t get from the unglamorous grind of doing the simple things well.” The Independent Sage group set up by former government chief scientific adviser David King called the project “a distraction” in a recent report, while one member—Allyson Pollock, co-director of the…