In the nine days since I wrote here about our struggles to get a Covid-test for our symptomatic 15-year-old son, the chaos in the country’s testing system rarely been out of the headlines.
After initially denying there were any problems, the government then blamed the public for demanding unnecessary tests; then admitted the backlog in the labs would take “a matter of weeks” to resolve; and then the odious Rees-Mogg accused the public of “carping”.
Health secretary Matt Hancock finally admitted the September rise in demand was far outstripping the supply of tests, although failed to concede this might have been predictable as millions of children went back to school and started picking up the usual autumn-term colds and other bugs. His proposed solution is to prioritise tests for hospital staff and patients, other health service workers, staff and residents of care homes, teachers and other key workers. That’s a long list of priorities.
The incompetence of this government speaks for itself. Rees-Mogg’s sneering comments speak of an out-of-touch entitlement to rule that cares not one jot for the everyday predicaments of families being left to make potentially life-affecting decisions on their own without the information needed to assess properly the risks we are taking.
Our family’s experience illustrates something of dilemmas being played out across the country.
Our youngest son had a sore throat from Sunday 6th Sept, with other cold-like symptoms including a cough starting on Wednesday 9th September, his first full day back at school since March. So that night we called NHS 111 and were told he should get a Covid test and until we got a result the whole family should self-isolate.
I spent the next two days failing to get through on website or phoneline to book a test – and eventually a friend gave us a home-testing kit they had ordered in the summer holidays and not used. I got the completed test into the last post on Friday 11th September. It was another four days before the result came back negative on Tuesday 15th September – six days after we’d been told to get a test.
For the virus to be kept under control, people who might have Covid have to stay away from other people. If you know you definitely have the virus, you’d be incredibly wreckless to fail to isolate. But self-isolating just in case is quite another matter. And the longer it takes to find out if you have Covid, the harder it is to stay away from people.
Every day self-isolating has its costs. For some it’s loss of income; for some there are profound mental health challenges; for both my sons who are in their A-Level and GCSE years, it’s loss of precious teaching time in a vital year when they’ve already been out of school for six months. The possible consequences for them of a couple more weeks’ missed school – at a time when teachers are working hard to make up for the already missed months – could be lower grades in the summer exams, a lost opportunity for higher education, and all that flows from that.
We all balance risks and their possible consequences. It’s human nature. And I have to report that our family struggled to properly self-isolate “just in case” youngest son’s “cold” turned out to be Covid.
In the full six days it took from him first getting a cough to the negative test result arriving, he did stay in his bedroom most of the time. Meanwhile, I methodically disinfected light switches, taps and door handles several times a day. But not everyone in my home stayed indoors the whole time. There were dog walks, a couple of shops, football and even a meal out.
If it had turned out to be Covid, how many people might our family have infected?
I’m sure we’re not exceptional. I’m sure plenty of usually socially responsible people will find it hard, after the year we’ve had so far, to self-isolate again “just in case” a family member’s cold symptoms turn out to be Covid.
According to Prof Andrew Hayward, director of University College London’s institute of epidemiology and healthcare, during a typical winter around half a million people a day could be expected to have Covid-like symptoms even in a year without a pandemic. The reality is that many of those people and their families are not going to stay indoors for 14 days while they try to get hold of a test.
It is not “carping” to suggest this government might save some lives by organising an accessible and speedy testing system enabling everyone with symptoms to get Covid tests and results back within a day or two. Without it, infectious people are not going to stay away from others and the virus will again spiral out of control.