The private sector must be allowed to help fight coronavirus

Morgan Schondelmeier

April 2, 2020

We weren’t prepared for this. We hardly knew what was coming. The country it first appeared in chose to obfuscate the issue rather than solve it, and so let it spread around the world. But what little advance notice the West had of this virus was hopelessly squandered by confused and inept decision-makers and hapless bureaucracy.

Our sole advantage in the fight against this pandemic is knowledge. Knowledge of how it is transmitted, what the warning signs are, how to prevent spread, and possible treatments. But with infectious diseases, the most important thing to know is where has the virus taken root. Who has Covid-19?

Of course, the best way to discover who has the virus is to test as quickly and as widely as possible. Testing won’t cure Covid-19, nor will it bring back lost loved ones, but it will allow public health professionals to pinpoint where the disease is spreading and allow for more targeted containment measures.

Testing the NHS staff will ensure that they are able to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves, not just the lives of others. Grocery stores and pharmacies will need to test their staff to prevent the spread to the millions of customers who rely on their services. Children and grandchildren should know if they’re asymptomatic carriers before dropping off supplies to their grandparents.

We cannot overstate the importance of testing in containing a pandemic.

But the UK has failed to generate enough testing capacity to provide the critical knowledge needed to fight the spread of Covid-19. A new report from the Adam Smith Institute, Testing Times: the urgent need to decentralise Covid-19 diagnostic testing in the United Kingdom, breaks down the major public policy failures in the UK’s testing response.

Primarily, the lack of testing capacity can be put down to strict centralisation of testing. In the UK, testing has been restricted to Public Health England (PHE), their proprietary test, and their twelve labs (expanded from one original lab).

Only recently have they even mobilised NHS labs or Public Health Wales labs. Reports are that PHE has refused help from private and non-governmental labs and insists on running all tests themselves. They also run samples through a central laboratory for result confirmation, extending the testing time dramatically.

Such limited engagement with other providers and labs has crippled the UK’s testing capacity. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise. We have seen the exact same problem in the USA.

The USA has two central bodies responsible for broad public health measures, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The FDA is responsible for approving drugs, tests, and clinical treatments for public use, and the CDC is responsible for disease control and prevention, including public awareness campaigns and creating and implementing testing regimes.

In the US, the CDC was responsible for developing a test for Covid-19 with the private sector due to follow suit. However, the CDC’s first test was defective which set back production and distribution. Meanwhile, the FDA was attempting to use their ‘non-war-time’ approval measures which can take months, if not years.

In order to expedite their approval of new tests, they paradoxically created more red tape and barriers for private, university, and charity laboratories. The US was stuck in a quagmire of regulation and bureaucratic sluggishness while they had useful tests sitting on the shelves, unauthorised for use.

Finally, in mid-March, the FDA negotiated emergency authorisation for tests in an attempt to implement a mass testing scheme. While these measures came desperately late, the US has since been able to drastically improve its testing capacity.

It is crystal clear what needs to be done in the UK. Public Health England must immediately desist their selfish centralisation of tests and mobilise every private, university, and charity lab in the country to contribute towards testing. These labs are ready, willing, and more than able to expand our testing capacity in the way that the US has.

This crisis has seen unprecedented cooperation between the private and public sector. Factories across the country are flipping their production lines to answer the call for ventilators, breweries and distilleries are creating hand sanitisers and multinational corporations are working towards a vaccine. This needs to be allowed to happen to our testing mechanism.

The bureaucratic chokehold preventing our world-leading universities and private laboratories from helping in the fight against Covid-19 is symptomatic of a larger refusal of our healthcare apparatus to accept outside help, as noted by Matt Ridley in the Spectator. The ideological opposition to private support of the healthcare system has been detrimental to our ability to fight Covid-19.

I hope that we can learn from this and begin to hold public health quangos accountable for their damaging actions. PHE positions itself as the ultimate arbiter of what is acceptable in this country. They pronounce on what you can eat, how much you should drink, even where a store can place their sweets. They were a nuisance before, but now we can see that they have failed to do their main job to protect and prepare the UK from severe public health crises like Covid-19.

They have decided that their control of testing is more acceptable than any outside assistance, regardless of the very human consequences. When this is all over, we need to think very carefully about whether Public Health England should even have a future.


Written by Morgan Schondelmeier

Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of Development at the Adam Smith Institute.


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