James Forsyth

Why didn’t the government learn from Scotland’s test shortage?

Why didn't the government learn from Scotland's test shortage?
Dido Harding, head of the NHS Test and Trace system, arrives at Downing Street (Getty images)
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This country is better prepared for any ‘second wave’ of Covid than it was for the first. But as I say in the magazine this week, a second wave will be far more difficult for the government politically than the first one was. There’ll be no rally round the flag effect this time. The public expect the government to be prepared.

The growing anger over testing is an example of this change. This country has the ability to test far more people than it did back in March. But there is mounting irritation about how many people in coronavirus hotspots are being told either that there are no tests available or are being sent long distances for their swab.

Public dissatisfaction will only grow as children can’t attend school and people can’t go to work because they can’t get a test. Governments are always most vulnerable when a policy problem directly impacts voters, and this one will.

In mitigation, allies of the Health Secretary point out that the decision to offer around 100,000 tests a day to care homes inevitably means the rest of the system is under pressure. But as with exam results, the government has failed to learn from Scotland’s mistakes. When schools returned north of the border, there was a rapid run on testing. On 25 August, Nicola Sturgeon appealed to people only to get themselves or their children tested if they had a new persistent cough, a fever or loss of taste and smell rather than just a back to school cold. The Westminster government should have seen what was happening in Scotland and done everything it could to increase testing capacity before schools returned. Hancock’s success in hitting the government’s 100,000 tests-a-day target in April shows that capacity can be increased at speed.

Given that one in five of the population of England is either at school or university or works in one of these settings, it is unsurprising that there has been a spike in demand for testing. But the fact it has caused such problems for the system is not an encouraging sign for the winter ahead.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.

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