The UK government has unveiled an antibody test which may at last give some light at the end of the lockdown tunnel. The blood test, developed by a Swiss Pharmaceutical company, has now reportedly been approved by scientists at its Porton Down laboratory who say it is 100% accurate at establishing whether an individual has built up immunity to coronavirus or not. In March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had emphasised the extent to which such a test, if rolled out across the country, could impact on the nation’s ability to manage the epidemic. He said: “The great thing about having a test to see whether you’ve had it enough, is suddenly a green light goes on above your head and you can go back to work safe and confident in the knowledge that you are most unlikely to get it again…So for an economic point of view, from a social point of view, it really could be a game-changer.”
This is good news in what has been a rough week for the government. Since having changed its messaging from ‘Stay At Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’ last weekend, it has had to respond to widespread criticism as it was universally acknowledged that the new slogan was far from clear. Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said it raises ‘as many questions as answers’. He said there were real problems with the announcement on Sunday that people could, if they were able to, return to work this week, as at the same time the public was being told it couldn’t use public transport. At the same time, because of the lack of notice given – only 12 hours – for employees to go back to work, employers were not given enough notice to prepare their work places accordingly.
Perhaps more significantly, the issue has also caused something of a constitutional rift as Scotland and Wales openly rejected Westminster’s messaging, suggesting that the implication that people no longer had to stay home jeopardised their wellbeing. The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon reiterated that the message in Scotland remains ‘Stay At Home’ and that the new rules regarding social distancing in England – that two people from different households can meet – did not apply north of the border. Given that Boris Johnson in his announcement on Sunday did not specify that the guidance was for England only, and that many Scots rely on London-based media for their information, there has been much confusion as to what guidance applies to them and what doesn’t.
The mixed messaging is something of a reflection of what is happening beneath the facade of government. ‘It’s a mess’ one minister told the BBC this week, as one official told reporter Laura Kuenssberg that ‘more than half the Cabinet have no clue what’s going on’. Some ministers apparently feel excluded from the decision making which makes it difficult when they are forced to defend ‘decisions they are not playing a full part in making’ in media interviews. This could explain why, as host of the prime time TV Show Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan, unveiled recently, government ministers have been banned from appearing on his show. The presenter has been dubbed the real UK opposition leader of late, as he has not hesitated to hold back in his interrogation of the government as to its handling of the pandemic. In one interaction, he scolded the Care Minister for sniggering in response to his questions, as he asked ‘‘I don’t know why you’re laughing, why are you laughing? It’s actually very serious. It says 4000 people may have died in care homes in this country.”
The scandal over coronavirus in care homes is one which is escalating as time goes on. New figures today reveal that an additional 23,000 care home deaths took place in the five months of the Covid-19 pandemic – a 170 percent rise from the same time last year. It’s been suggested that the elderly have been little more than ‘sitting ducks’ during the crisis, and that not enough has been done to protect the vulnerable in society. Only recently had the testing of patients entering care homes from hospital begun, up until that point elderly patients could easily contract the virus in hospital before transferring it to other care home residents upon return to the home. In this way, the virus spread like wildfire across care homes in Britain.
Sir Keir Starmer on Thursday criticised the government for its ‘slow response’ to the epidemic in care homes which led to a war of words between himself and the Prime Minister. Starmer, during Prime Minister’s questions, quoted from government advice up to 12th March which said that ‘it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected’. Boris Johnson said in parliament that this was not true, which led to Starmer compiling a letter to Johnson confirming the document he had quoted from.
The care home issue won’t go away any time soon, with the figure of extra deaths which could have been prevented earlier, had testing taken place, likely to haunt Johnson for years to come. The news that an antibody test is on the horizon is a glimmer of hope at this time, but there’s much work to be done yet before it can be rolled out on a mass scale. The government’s not out of the woods yet.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.