Ross Clark Ross Clark

Go with the flow: how helpful is mass testing?

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Over half the adult population has been vaccinated, new infections and deaths have plummeted to their lowest level since last September — and the government chooses this point to launch a programme to test every adult for Covid twice a week. The Prime Minister is due to announce this afternoon that lateral flow testing kits will be distributed by the million, free of charge to anyone who wants them. We will all be encouraged to test ourselves — and be placed under an obligation to self-isolate if they are positive.

Why? We have spent the past three months on a massive vaccination programme, using vaccines that have proved pretty well 100 per cent effective at preventing deaths and serious illness. Recent estimates suggest that as many as 60 per cent of the population now has Covid antibodies compared to just over 10 per cent in December. 

And yet we’re now adopting a programme of mass testing. Does the government not believe in the efficacy of those vaccines? Last year it was telling us that 60 per cent of the population would have to be vaccinated or to have had the disease in order to achieve herd immunity. Yet the government now acts as if vaccination cannot on its own kill off the epidemic. 

What is being introduced this week has its roots last summer, when we were trying to control the pandemic without any sign of the vaccines. It is the enactment of ‘Operation Moonshot’, which the Prime Minister announced last September — and which in the same month leaked documents showed would cost £100 billion (by contrast, the National Audit Office suggested at the end of last year that the UK was spending £12 billion on vaccines). The cost of mass testing would have been hard to justify at any point, but at least in pre-vaccine days there was a strong incentive to spend large sums on testing to get the country back to normal. Yet

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