The Spectator

Covid-19 update: UK will be world leader in antibody testing, says Matt Hancock

Covid-19 update: UK will be world leader in antibody testing, says Matt Hancock
Migrant workers maintain social distancing as they queue to receive food packets in Chennai, India (Photo: Getty)
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News and analysis

  • The UK aims to be a world leader in Covid-19 antibody testing, says Matt Hancock.
  • Singapore, which was thought to have beaten the virus, is closing schools to ‘pre-empt escalating infections’.
  • The first person to be charged with breaching lockdown legislation has conviction dropped after police admitted they had misunderstood new laws.
  • NHS makeshift hospitals to open in Bristol (1,000-patient) and Harrogate (500 beds). NHS Nightingale, in London, was officially opened by Prince Charles this morning.
  • Global Covid-19 infections pass one million. UK Covid-19 deaths rose by 684 yesterday, bringing the total to 3,605.

‘Good News!’

Testing times

After the scandalous shortages of antigen tests for those with Covid-19, the UK now aims to be one of the first nations to do mass antibody testing to determine who has had it. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, says the UK is ‘conducting some of the biggest surveys in the world to find out what proportion of the population already have the virus’. He elaborated this morning: ‘We have already 3,500 a week of antibody tests at Porton Down, and they are the top quality, the best test in the world. We’re using those for research purposes to understand how much of the population has had coronavirus.’

Those who test positive will be judged to be pretty-much immune and able, as Boris Johnson put it, and it’s possible they could ‘go back to work’. Such workers might be issued with a certificate proving their coronavirus immune status or, as Hancock has suggested, be given a wristband. Perhaps more importantly, antibody tests can test the theory behind the lockdown: how many people have already had it and are immune? Between 5 per cent and 10 per cent in hotspots like London, as Imperial’s Neil Ferguson suggests? Or could it be most people nationwide, as academics from Oxford and Stanford have suggested?

It’s astonishing that there is so much doubt about the very basics of this virus: but as James Ball says in this week’s Spectator, the avalanche of numbers are just estimates with a decimal point – and a massive error margin. For every person testing positive to Covid-19, how many have it? In China’s case, ten or twenty. What we just don’t know about coronavirus is staggering. Antibody tests, if they work, could change that. But the idea of coronavirus-positive certificates – citizens entitled to liberty in a locked-down country – is deeply controversial, as James Forsyth and Katy Balls explore in the lastest Coffee House Shots podcast.

Quote of the day 

'Hydroxychloroquine kills the coronavirus.'

Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis, says his company’s anti-malaria drug works on Covid-19. He has donated 130 million doses.

America turns to masks 

Updated guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to encourage the use of non-surgical masks– so, take care, but leave the proper medical kit for medics. But there is still debate in the Trump administration about how far the recommendations should go, and whether masks should be voluntary or mandatory.

Trump has come a long way in a few weeks, from dubbing concerns about coronavirus a ‘hoax’, to following the rest of the world with social distancing measures, business shutdowns, and now, encouraging the take-up of a new facial accessory.

Migrant workers maintain social distancing as they queue to receive food packets in Chennai, India (Photo: Getty).

Covid-19 in data

The economic hit of Covid-19 by country (from Capital Economics).


Head of the Chinese fight against Covid-19 says the West’s big mistake is dodging masks.

'The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.'

– George Gao, the Director-General of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview with Science magazine.

Coronavirus abroad

  • The FBI has seized nearly a million pieces of medical equipment from a man in New York, including 200,000 masks.
  • Italy's civil protection chief Angelo Borrelli told RAI that he doesn’t think his country’s lockdown ‘will have ended by 1 May’. As of yesterday, Italy had 13,915 Covid-19 related deaths, the highest in the world.
  • Russia says it will dispatch 11 planes worth of medical equipment to Serbia. Has already sent aid to the US and Italy.
  • Air France-KLM has held talks with banks to receive a combined loans package of €6 billion guaranteed by the French and Dutch governments. The countries each own a 14 per cent share of the airline group.
  • Israel has sealed off the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, labelling it a ‘restricted zone’. People are only allowed in or out for medical reasons. Up to 38 per cent of the 200,000 residents are estimated to have contracted the coronavirus.
  • Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare a state of emergency as it would send a ‘strong message’ to avoid a larger outbreak. Japan has 2,800 confirmed cases of which 800 are in Tokyo, a city of 14 million people.

Did you know that sunlight boosts immunity? At least that’s the excuse of the South Sulawesi Regional Police in Indonesia, who combine social distancing with sunbathing (Photo: Getty).


  • A hedge fund that bet on Covid-19 chaos has seen its assets soar by 36 per cent.
  • Nobel laureate Paul Romer estimates the virus has cut 20 per cent from US economic output.
  • The Asian Development Bank has estimated that the economic impact of Covid-19 could reduce global GDP by between $2 and $4 trillion.
  • The global economic collapse is starting to be picked up in surveys. In the UK, the IHS Markit services PMI came in at 34.5 in March, down from 52.3 in February ‘By far the fastest downturn in service sector output since the survey began in July 1996,’ Markit says.
  • Italy posted a record low services PMI reading for any country.

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