Bruce Anderson

Moonshot testing is the only way to escape this mess

Moonshot testing is the only way to escape this mess
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On Covid, there is a basic question: what is the government's strategy? No one seems to know what ministers are doing and why. But how could we? Neither do they.

The lockdown approach is based on a premise, which has turned out to be false: that we could suppress and eliminate the virus – or at least keep it under control until the arrival of a vaccine. But there is no reason to believe that there will be a vaccine any time soon.

Pharmaceutical companies have spent billions on research into vaccines for HIV and the common cold. Thus far, those efforts have been unavailing. If a Covid vaccine were discovered – and that is a huge if – it might become available among the ruins of the British economy. That is a likely consequence if the current lockdown policy stumbles on into next year. So is a greatly increased death rate among cancer and heart disease sufferers. So is increased mental health problems, leading to ruined lives. So is general social demoralisation.

It seems likely that we should just get used to the fact that Covid is here to stay: one of the cocktail of respiratory infections which manifest themselves every winter. Although we can hope that it will become less virulent, we may have to accept that, like flu, we have to live with it and that like flu, some of us will die from it. But life must carry on.

Everything started going wrong at the beginning and there is a simple explanation: panic. It is all the Italians' fault. If the Italian outbreak had stated in Naples, or better still, Palermo, no one would have worried. Glorious places, superb art – yet when it comes to civic competence, they are well behind Florence: Fifteenth-Century Florence. But hospital patients on trolleys were dying in Bergamo. Bergamo is part of Lombardy. Although it may lack the dolce far niente charm of the South, everything works. So when its health system collapsed, the British authorities wondered what would happen when the plague hit Birmingham.

It did hit Bojo, which added to the panic. At the switching on of a ventilator, he moved from dolce far niente to timor mortis conturbat me, and government policy moved with him. From then on, the panic spread, along with another syndrome which is all too prevalent in Britain: puritanism. This has not just manifested itself in a disapproval of pleasure. The enthusiasm for lockdown has taken on a quasi-religious intensity.

A large number of serious medics and scientists have signed the Great Barrington Declaration, arguing, in effect, for the Swedish approach, based on common sense and herd immunity. The response to this coolly-argued contribution to the debate was widespread abuse. Anyone who did not believe in lockdown was obviously a racist who was also determined to destroy the planet.

The Barringtonians are the reverse of dogmatic. They want a serious scientific debate. To those who try to deny them that right, there is an obvious riposte: are you refusing to debate because you are unable to do so? Not since the days of Stalin and Pavlov have a group of eminent scientists been subjected to such obloquy. At least Professor Sunetra Gupta and her colleagues do not have to fear the executioner or the Gulag. Antifa is not in power – yet.

The government's intellectual difficulties have been highlighted by Manchester. Andy Burnham is an interesting fellow. He was given rapid promotion under Gordon Brown, holding three Cabinet posts in three years. (That is no way to run a government, which did not prevent Theresa May and Boris Johnson from similar competence-subverting manoeuvres.) In the leadership election won by Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Burnham came a distant second. When he resigned from the Commons in favour of Manchester, his Shadow Cabinet replacement was Diane Abbott. That tells one a lot about the pre-Starmer Labour party, and the extent of the recent changes. Plenty of sensible Labour people wish that he was still at Westminster, to assist in further changes.

Andy Burnham is still only 50. He might well be the ablest senior figure in his party, so it is hard to believe that he is finished with national politics. That said, he has a problem. His political and economic instincts are centre-left, with a heavy emphasis on centre. That is not the easiest way to endear himself to the Labour party. There is a parallel with Keir Starmer. He would have no difficulty in dropping the centre. But he would like a career with the British electorate. The two men could surely find a way to cooperate. They need each other.

In the short-term, it does not seem to matter that Mayor Burnham resisted intensified restrictions a few days after Keir Starmer called for a circuit-breaking lockdown. After all Boris Johnson said 'go back to work.' A few days later, he prefaced it with a 'don't’. But Boris also made a comment which sounded daft at the time but may actually be the way forward. He called for testing on a moon-shot scale by Christmas. That is not impossible. Reliable saliva-based testing is gaining apace. A firm called Halo, which I mentioned in the magazine a few weeks ago, has made striking progress, winning customers and widespread approval. Such testing could be especially useful in aviation. If everyone taking off in a sterile plane had been tested, air travel would be much easier.

We will not reach the moon by Xmas, and tests are not the same as a vaccine. But they could help to reduce economic damage: a vital task.