Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, made “test, test, test” the battle cry of governments combating the coronavirus pandemic. However, the UK has been painfully slow to adopt it – with predictably disastrous results. To contain such a viral pathogen, nations must develop a test and use it to identify infected people, isolate them, and trace those they’ve had contact with. That is what South Korea and Germany are doing. It is what the United Kingdom did not.
Because Downing Street underestimated the risks and moved too slowly to a regime of mass testing, the Covid-19 virus was allowed to spread faster and wider than might have been the case, by which point the materials and swabs that the tests needed were harder to procure. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Thursday that the resource gaps would be filled. Such promises are easily made, but experience ought to tell us to be sceptical about whether they will be met. A grim landmark was passed hours before Mr Hancock spoke. The number of daily deaths from Covid-19 surpassed those of tuberculosis. The virus is now officially the world’s most deadly infectious disease.
It is the clear from the cabinet minister’s press conference and mien that the success of Germany in quickly scaling up testing capacity has bruised the government’s ego. The reason that two wealthy European liberal democracies had such different outcomes in rapidly responding to the coronavirus crisis, Mr Hancock suggested, lay in Germany’s vast diagnostic industry, anchored around the might of the giant firm Roche.
But this does not explain how in mid-January, after the Chinese authorities released the genetic sequence of the virus, South Korea produced the chemicals and the equipment needed for mass-testing regimes combined with contact tracing. What does is the government’s persistence with the discredited tactic of herd immunity in fighting a pandemic for which there is no vaccine. That is why Public Health England only began rolling out its diagnostic test a month after Berlin researchers announced they had developed a laboratory test for the virus.
Time is of the essence, something Germany understood, which is why it was able to ship 1.4m tests by the end of February for the World Health Organization. Mr Hancock now boasts of testing 100,000 a day in four weeks, a feat enabled by creating a diagnostic base from scratch. But these include a variety of investigations, not just the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method of testing for the virus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic, Sars-CoV-2. Germany, by comparison, aims to run 200,000 PCR tests every 24 hours at the end of the month.
While Mr Hancock would like to focus on Germany’s private sector strengths, it may be more enlightening to look at the country’s institutional makeup. Germany’s 16 federal states make their own decisions on coronavirus testing because each of them is responsible, in a political and social sense, for their own healthcare systems. While public health is devolved in England to local authorities, this is really a mechanism for the Treasury to impose cuts on councils without taking responsibility for them. German virologists say that also having no centralised diagnostic system that would restrict others from doing the tests is key to understanding the quicker, earlier and broader testing for Covid-19. Perhaps, with humility, Mr Hancock could think in the longer term of making the case not just for mimicking Germany’s economic strengths but also adopting the benefits of a social market economy with strong decentralising and socially cohesive values.