With latest statistics showing a worrying decrease in levels of rapid testing for COVID-19, Alex Sheppard, CEO of Vatic, discusses the need to urgently address the issue
The UK is emerging at last from the COVID-19 induced torpor that we’ve all had to live with for over a year now. It feels like the country’s coming back to life as lockdown restrictions are lifted and we’re able to return to at least a semblance of normality.
While variants of the virus are still causing problems in certain communities, most people believe that the Covid situation is now under control, and the main reason for this is the perceived success of the vaccination programme. By quickly inoculating a significant proportion of the adult population, there’s a widespread assumption that here at last is the magic bullet that’s going to stop the virus in its tracks once and for all.
However, that’s a dangerous assumption to make, because we’re definitely not out of the woods yet. The virus is still out there and people are still catching it, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. In fact, it’s almost certain that COVID-19 will always be with us, as complete eradication – certainly at a global level – currently looks to be nigh impossible.
Furthermore, allowing it to spread unfettered risks more and more novel variants emerging, raising the risk threat to our protective wall built with mass vaccinations. And this is sadly not a problem that any one country on its own can solve. So long as COVID-19 remains endemic in multiple countries across the world, our ability to regain the physical connectivity we lost in 2020 will be limited. Complete isolation can only ever be a short term solution, as we have seen in Australia and New Zealand, and global equitable distribution of both tests and vaccines will be essential to reduce the risk of variants emerging which can get around our immune systems.
This is why the recent news that the number of rapid tests being carried out in England has fallen to just over 5 million a week at the start of May is deeply alarming. To put this figure in context, there were 7.6 million tests a week being conducted in March when the schools reopened, so the drop-off since then is significant (albeit it is likely part of this drop off is resulting from the pain points felt with the system used to record results, the number of areas in scope for free testing has massively increased from March where only schools were eligible).
In a population of 56 million people, only 5 million a week is very low. And this is despite a government campaign to encourage home testing twice a week with a view to normalising the behaviour, as happened with mask wearing, which was once alien.
Alongside vaccination, mass testing remains the key tenet of the government’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy, with the ability to quickly identify outbreaks of the virus fundamental to keeping its spread under control, ensuring that hospitals don’t become overwhelmed by new cases, and reducing its impact on the UK’s economic recovery.
So why have testing numbers fallen to this extent? Certainly the vaccination programme has affected the testing regime, reducing the sense of urgency that a lot of people once felt around understanding their COVID status. It could also be a question of access – while anybody can now order the government’s lateral flow tests through the post for free, the process has a more reactive than proactive feel and the benefits of doing so are vague to individuals, especially given the vaccination narrative.
But there are two other factors that I believe have caused this downturn in testing. The first is ease of use, and the second is a lack of incentivisation.
Anybody who’s had to administer a test using the government’s lateral flow kits, whether to themselves or a child, will know how uncomfortable and unpleasant they are. Sticking a swab down the back of your throat and then up a nostril is nobody’s idea of fun, and no parent wants to be responsible for traumatising their children by regularly forcing an invasive procedure on them. Furthermore, once you’ve got a result, there’s then the rigmarole of reporting it via the government’s online portal, which many people have found to be unnecessarily time-consuming and intrusive of personal privacy.
And again, now that the initial shock of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has significantly diminished, and vaccination continues apace, a sizeable proportion of the public are left wondering why we need to keep testing. Ultimately, what’s in it for them?
While swab fatigue may have set in for many people, easier alternatives to the current lateral flow tests exist. For instance, it’s now possible to administer a lateral flow test that requires just a simple saliva sample. Not only is a quick swab inside the mouth a lot less taxing and inconvenient than the current test, it’s also more likely to produce a clear result ie. one that hasn’t potentially been compromised by the tricky throat/nostril procedure. Simply by making the test easier to do could boost testing numbers once again.
But perhaps an even bigger issue is convincing people that testing is worth persisting with.
I believe that business has a major role to play in addressing this problem, because there’s definitely a big incentive for companies to regularly test their workforce. It only takes one team member to fall ill with the virus for their entire department to then have to self-isolate, which is disastrous for firms whose business simply can’t be carried out remotely. At the very least, it’s a major pain for any company that’s managed to survive during lockdown, and has carefully planned a return to the workplace, only for a single case of COVID to scupper those plans.
The only way for businesses to proceed without fear of interruption is to ensure that infected employees never set foot in the workplace. Yet mass testing no longer means staff standing in the car park for half an hour each morning, waiting for a health professional to carry out an uncomfortable, invasive procedure. Saliva-based lateral flow tests can be quickly and easily self-administered by employees before they leave home – each test generates its own unique QR code that can be scanned and checked before they enter the workplace.
There’s a clear incentive then for both employers and employees to undertake regular testing to significantly de-risk potential business interruption – but what about everybody else? One solution is for a certified test result to actually unlock tangible benefits. For example, in Liverpool, a city which has been at the forefront of COVID testing, local businesses are offering residents various discounts and offers on proof of a test result, such as 20 per cent off the a la carte menu at Marco Pierre White’s local restaurant. Turning initiatives such as these into national schemes could have a huge impact on the uptake of testing and ensure we keep the virus at bay given the fact that the vaccine does not wholly prevent transmission.
We haven’t cracked the COVID nut yet, and even though vaccination is an important part of accelerating the return to normal, it’s vital that mass testing is also maintained. So let’s try and make it as easy as possible. The government seems extremely likely to end its free testing scheme over the summer, pushing this driver towards the private sector, but in the meantime, companies can take the initiative and work with the private sector to make employee testing a key part of their business recovery plan.