Like a gambling addict, Boris Johnson racks up losses but keeps laying larger bets, convinced a last big win awaits him. In a casino, this plan might hurt his wallet and his pride. In a pandemic wrapped around the shock of Brexit, such a strategy could cost, unnecessarily, lives and livelihoods. But Mr Johnson has won against the odds before. Faced with a political opponent, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who is able to marshall Mr Johnson’s own Conservative backbenchers against him, the prime minister has opted to double down on his plan to test his way out of the coronavirus crisis. But it is not a winning wager.
The prime minister has pinned his hopes on a new saliva-based test that can tell whether a person is Covid-positive within 15 minutes. Speed is essential to contain a pandemic. With wait times for diagnostic test results not coming down fast enough, contact tracers have too short a window to identify coronavirus patients before they have a chance to infect others. The centralised, privately run test-and-trace system is clunky and relies on specialised laboratories. By comparison, the new tests can be done on the spot.
Having quick, easy-to-use tests alone won’t be enough. They are generally less accurate than the traditional diagnostic PCR tests and produce higher rates of false positive results. The saliva tests are also not as sensitive and tend to work best on the highly infectious. However, they are cheap, with the US Food and Drug Administration authorising a $5 version of the test in August. Mr Johnson’s Operation Moonshot aims to deliver up to 10m tests a day – which amounts roughly to testing every adult in England, even if they were not showing symptoms, twice a week.
This is still no panacea for the problems of the floundering test-and-trace system. Running more tests would only be useful if local councils could follow up with a confirmatory test and then isolate positive patients – as well as notifying all their contacts to quarantine. What is required is not a silver bullet, but paying for an army of foot soldiers prepared to track down and squash viral outbreaks. But such realism smacks of a “nanny state” intervention that Mr Johnson knows many in his party are instinctively uncomfortable with. Instead, the prime minister will, one suspects, couch his policy in a more congenial argument for Tory MPs: that people must take control of their health and the infected should be responsible for isolating themselves.