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Boris Johnson’s push for mass testing is set for failure before it even gets off the grounds

The campaign for regular, mass Covid testing has begun in earnest. From last Friday, everyone in England has been eligible to access lateral flow tests for free. The government would like people to test themselves twice a week.

Under the slogan “Hands, Face, Space, Fresh Air”, the public is being urged to use the NHS COVID-19 app when checking into outdoor hospitality, hairdressers and the like.

But just how effective will either of these be?

The NHS app does not have a good track record. True, it was downloaded some 21 million times last year, but the majority of these took place very shortly after its launch and it never obtained real traction.

The number of downloads seems impressive, but it is only around 40 per cent of the adult population. The low proportion has been driven by both social norms and deliberate choices by individuals.

The percentage of the population with the app never quite reached the critical point at which people felt obliged by peer pressure to download it themselves. Definite improvements have been made to it over time and there is little doubt the government is hoping that many more will take it up to facilitate entry into leisure and retail outlets.

However, the government’s own website makes clear that the option of simply leaving your details manually remains valid. Last year, there were a great deal of examples of people taking creative license with their name and contact details.

For many people, there was a positive disincentive to register on the app. You might have been on the other side of the pub or restaurant from an infected person, with very little chance of picking up the virus, but the app could still tell you to self-isolate by virtue of being in the same premises.

This disincentive still remains with the free lateral flow tests. Of course, the tests tell you not whether you merely might have it but that you probably do. But for those who are self-employed or who need to actually turn up to work to get paid, the immediate risk of losing out on a pay-cheque can feel greater than the reward.

The very success of the vaccines means there is much less incentive to have a test done. Even amongst the very elderly, the hospitalisation rate amongst those vaccinated appears, in real-life data not just in small-scale trials, to be essentially zero.

It also seems possible for people to fraudulently enter negative results in the app without ever taking a test. For some desperate to return to normality, the temptation might prove to great. There may be ways of checking up on this, but rather like the speed limit on unrestricted motorways, the chances of being caught seem slim.

The same system this time last year would have been introduced with massive popular relief and approval. Now, it seems unnecessary and costly. Cases, hospitalisations and deaths are so low, and vaccines so effective, the government would do better to follow the data and open up the country quickly.

As published in City AM Wednesday 14th April 2021
Image: Gustave.iii, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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