Shooting for the Moon

12th September 2020

COVID-19 – is the message hitting home?

Just when it seemed that the bungling incompetence of the Boris Johnson led UK government could not find new depths to explore, this week we were proved wrong.  As the infection rate for COVID-19 soars, doubling every seven days, ahead of a likely upturn in deaths in hospitals, communities and care homes, the UK Prime Minister announced Operation Moonshot.

In a Downing Street propaganda stunt, dressed up as a press briefing on Wednesday, Johnson announced new measures to tackle the pandemic, the most immediate being the so-called ‘rule of six’, whereby from Monday, 14th September in England gatherings, indoors or outdoors, will be illegal if they involve more than six people.  There are some exclusions relating to outdoor sporting events, the overall numbers allowed in restaurants and organised public gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, but the core principle for the public is, no more than six.

In addition, eventually catching up with Scotland, test and trace arrangements will be mandatory in England from the 18th September.  This is aimed at the widespread flouting of the voluntary test and trace arrangements, which have effectively been a case of take no test and leave no trace, as people pack out bars and cafes with little heed to social distancing thus generating an exponential spread of the virus.

None of this should be any cause for concern however.  Why? Because the government which brought us herd immunity; inadequate test and trace at the start of the pandemic; the scramble for sufficient and appropriate PPE for health workers; the failure to lock down soon enough; the easing of lockdown restrictions too soon; and the exam result and return to schools debacle; that very same government has now promised Operation Moonshot.

Moonshot will allegedly accelerate testing from the current 200,000 a day to 10 million a day by 2021 at the cost of a mere £100 billion.  The plan is for at least two to four million tests by December before full roll out in 2021.  Moonshot will allow those testing negative to go to mass events such as football matches without spreading the virus.  The government scientific advisory body Sage does acknowledge however that this will require “superb organisation and logistics with rapid, highly sensitive tests”, not qualities on display so far during the present crisis.

Sage also point out, though the government do not seem keen to publicise the fact, that mass testing “can only lead to decreased transmission if individuals with a positive test rapidly undertake effective isolation.”  Evidence to date suggests that this may be a big ask.

Still, why be sceptical?  As ever with this government we will be cradled safely in the arms of the private sector.  Deloitte, a major partner in the government’s current hugely successful test and trace programme, in which you can drive hundreds of miles to a test site, will be there!  Better still, at least sixteen other companies and university partners will be along to play.  Big pharma gets a look in with GSK, Smith and Nephew, as well as Astra Zeneca.   Sainsbury’s and Boots are in the mix from the retail sector, all of this with the aim of “buying their large scale capabilities to build a large scale testing organisation.”  Private sector snouts in the public finance trough.

Johnson is said to have compared the programme to the Manhatttan Project, the US drive to develop an atomic bomb, in a typical moment of bombastic self aggrandisement.  It is revealing that a project to save lives should in any way bear comparison to one to develop weapons of mass destruction.   

While the basis of Moonshot is the development of tests which do not need to be processed in a laboratory but, like a pregnancy test, can give a result in minutes there is as yet no reliable science to suggest this is achievable in the timescale outlined by the government.  In fact, Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said on Thursday,

“There are prototypes which look as though they have some effect, but they’ve got to be tested properly.  We would be completely wrong to assume this is a slam dunk that can definitely happen.”

A word in the Prime Minister’s ear perhaps?

The private sector continues to profit from the pandemic with sales of possible vaccines generating billions in revenue.  The UK alone has ordered 340m million doses of possible vaccine from six manufacturers.  The EU is alleged to have done a deal worth £2.2bn with one company.  The US programme, Operation Warp Speed, already has orders with six companies for 800m doses with options on another 1.6bn.  Currently 321 vaccines are being developed globally, of which 32 are at the clinical trials stage.

While the Western economies do their best to corner the possible vaccine market there are some mitigations for poorer countries.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set up the Covax programme, established to allow countries to share in the benefits of vaccine development, once working vaccines emerge.  There is also the ongoing vaccine development work in China and Cuba, where economies not driven by the interests of private sector profit will take a more supportive approach to the needs of developing nations.

Meanwhile in the UK, as the infection level climbs, the population are tied to a failed government, which has failed in its response to the pandemic so far, shooting for the moon. It would be funny if so many lives did not depend upon it.

Johnson has proved beyond doubt that he is a clown, but no-one is laughing.

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