Today was Boris Johnson’s first press conference since announcing that people would only be allowed to leave their homes for a small number of state-sanctioned activities. But in a sign of how fast this crisis is moving, there were few questions on this. Instead, the focus was on testing and why the UK hasn’t managed to ramp it up yet.
The government is most excited about the idea of an antibody test that would show who has had the virus. This would transform the situation: it would mean that NHS staff who had had coronavirus could carry on working even if they had symptoms, it would mean we would know who could volunteer without taking any risk with their own health and it would enable those who have had it to resume something approaching normal life.
In evidence to the Science and Technology committee today, the director of the National Infection Service suggested that these tests would be available in days and that people would be able to order them from Amazon. But at tonight’s press conference Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, tried to dial down expectations. He said that the tests still needed to be assessed and there would be an order to who would get them, with NHS and other key workers rightly coming first. So, Joe Public getting tested is, sadly, a matter of months, not weeks, away and the longer the wait for this test, the bigger the economic hit the country will take.
It is only when we have this antibody test that we will have a sense of how many of the population have had the disease, and thus how fatal it is. When Boris Johnson asked the chief scientific adviser about the Oxford study which suggested that half the population may have had coronavirus already, Patrick Vallance replied that we ‘simply don’t know’ whether that is right or not.
The headlines at the moment aren’t very cheering. But there was one piece of unadulterated good news at this press conference: more than 400,000 people have volunteered to help the NHS during this crisis in just 24 hours, smashing the government’s target of 250,000.
The hoarders, the price gougers and those selfish folks who wouldn’t follow the official advice had made people question what kind of society we were. But these volunteers suggest we might be a better society than we thought we were.