Chris Cook: Playing catch up

Friday 6 November 2020

Britain’s Treasury is gearing up for a health crisis that will last until at least March. The rest of the government must do likewise


The Treasury’s decision this week to extend the furlough to March is, in one sense, optimistic: if you think there will be a vaccine, it is worth trying to keep bodies, souls and wallets together until then with a lot of support.

But it also suggests a bleak picture about the next five months: the four-week lockdown which Britain has now entered is not expected to be followed by a snap back to the conditions of early autumn. This hints at a rougher outlook for the next few months – and a loss of confidence in the ability of other measures to contain the virus until vaccines arrive in serious numbers.

In Wales, where Test and Trace has done better than its counterpart in England, outbreaks were not effectively smothered by the contact-finders. Even in Germany, the outbreaks have breached the bounds of what their contact-tracers could hold back. Once the virus was in wide circulation, we should have lowered our expectations about tracing.

There is other bad news, too: a trial for mass testing in Greater Manchester may already have some significant problems. The Guardian reports today that one test technology they have deployed only caught half of the cases it should. This may not be surprising: the test in question was intended “to identify samples from patients likely to have current SARS-CoV-2 infection”.

This caveat is important because the test is not as sensitive as other testing technologies. It identifies 95 per cent of people with high volumes of the virus present in their bodies. But when you take still-positive results with a slightly lower viral load, it drops to 79 per cent. The average over all the samples in the initial lab validation was only 82 per cent accuracy.

The Treasury’s decision this week to extend the furlough to March is, in one sense, optimistic: if you think there will be a vaccine, it is worth trying to keep bodies, souls and wallets together until then with a lot of support.

But it also suggests a bleak picture about the next five months: the four-week lockdown which Britain has now entered is not expected to be followed by a snap back to the conditions of early autumn. This hints at a rougher outlook for the next few months – and a loss of confidence in the ability of other measures to contain the virus until vaccines arrive in serious numbers.

In Wales, where Test and Trace has done better than its counterpart in England, outbreaks were not effectively smothered by the contact-finders. Even in Germany, the outbreaks have breached the bounds of what their contact-tracers could hold back. Once the virus was in wide circulation, we should have lowered our expectations about tracing.

There is other bad news, too: a trial for mass testing in Greater Manchester may already have some significant problems. The Guardian reports today that one test technology they have deployed only caught half of the cases it should. This may not be surprising: the test in question was intended “to identify samples from patients likely to have current SARS-CoV-2 infection”.

This caveat is important because the test is not as sensitive as other testing technologies. It identifies 95 per cent of people with high volumes of the virus present in their bodies. But when you take still-positive results with a slightly lower viral load, it drops to 79 per cent. The average over all the samples in the initial lab validation was only 82 per cent accuracy.

The value of a door-to-door testing campaign in a single city is that you can, in effect, stamp out a local outbreak more rapidly. But it needs proper process – and will only work if the test is reliable and does not leave one in five potential spreaders to roam their cities unnoticed. This test looks poorly suited as a tool for mass testing to find asymptomatic spreaders.

Switching to seeing the current acute crisis as being likely to persist into the spring also raises other issues. For one thing, it raises the stakes for Britain on securing as smooth an exit from the EU as possible.

Furthermore, a lot of support was (expensively) ill-targeted in the first wave. We need to think not just about self-employment, but about sector-specific problems. Tourism, hospitality and childcare have had a particularly grim year. Transport towns that were hit hard by lockdown in the summer will be hit again now. Local government does not have the bandwidth to carry a financial crisis while fighting the virus. The further education system was not supported to let people use their time productively.

Moving to a March horizon is also an apt moment to reconsider the current mess in universities. It is worth thinking about moving tuition online until Easter (at least), and working out how to best support students, their families and their collective health until then. It is a pretty rough deal for everyone at the moment, and university leaders do not feel they have political cover to respond. Institutions are not doing well: face-to-face teaching is still going ahead, despite examples of staff members catching the disease. Manchester University, meanwhile, erected a barrier around some of its halls to guarantee lockdown compliance.

There is a risk that a migration online will lead to a wave of dropping out, but a carceral approach to higher education participation is not likely to succeed. There will be people who will want to move home and others not able to go anywhere else for the foreseeable future: institutions will need to be understanding about that. And the Department for Education will need to be relaxed, too.

All of which is to say: policy across Whitehall needs to catch up with the Treasury’s pessimism. The government is not otherwise braced for a crisis that its finance minister expects to last until March.