Almost three in four people think failing private contractors Serco and Sitel should be booted out of their role running so-called “NHS Test and Trace” according to a Survation poll, as evidence mounts of serial incompetence, widespread non-availability of tests, disastrous software failures sending people on ridiculous long journeys for tests, and lengthening delays in getting test results.

But Tory peer Dido Harding, appointed as “testing czar” by Matt Hancock, has “strongly refuted” claims the system is failing. She also confesses to having been surprised by the “unexpected” increased demand for Covid testing … as the schools and universities reopened, people were urged back to offices, and more  restrictions were lifted.

The failures of Serco and Sitel have been compounded by delays and failures in the five part-privatised “Lighthouse” laboratories which ministers insisted on setting up rather than expanding the existing network of NHS and public health laboratories.

A sixth Lighthouse lab in Newport has been delayed, and a seventh due to open next month – ignoring warnings from the Institute of Biomedical Science that the lighthouse laboratories have become “a parallel but disconnected testing stream for COVID-19,” and have “failed to deliver robust data”.  The IBMS warned in June that “Links with clinical systems are still poor and the data generated raises more questions than it answers.”

With chaos still rife in testing as well as the privatised systems for tracking contacts of positive cases, Dido Harding is now looking to the so-called “Moonshot” saliva-based tests, which she and Boris Johnson apparently believe will give results within 15 minutes, and will enable 10 million tests a day by early 2021.

However she has now said these tests will not be made available on the NHS, but will carry a fee for individuals or companies that make use of them. Since the estimated cost of the Moonshot programme is a staggering £100 billion a year or more for 3.65 billion tests, this suggests a fee of at least £27 per test – at a time when unemployment is certain to be rising, the economy in recession  and a growing proportion of the population will be in severe financial distress.

Since statistics show that people living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to die of Covid-19, and also least likely to be able to afford to quarantine if tested positive, Harding’s plan is unlikely to lead to the mass roll-out of testing where it matters most.

Worse still the Moonshot tests themselves are scientifically unsound, according to a BMJ editorial: up to 41% of positive tests are in asymptomatic people, but a positive test in those with no history of symptoms could indicate either current infection or previously resolved asymptomatic infection.

On current form the testing is likely to be contracted out to private companies, possibly including those who have already been selling “suboptimal products, possibly encouraged by the magnitude of government contracts, low levels of government scrutiny, and the lack of an effective regulatory process for diagnostic tests.”

Even if the reliability of the test was increased to 99% the BMJ authors warn that “proposals to do 10 million tests a day will generate many thousands of false positive results, causing unnecessary but legally enforced isolation of both cases and contacts with potentially damaging consequences for the UK economy and for civil liberties.”

Add to that the fact that even as ministers commit to the project, the technology does not yet exist, other than in computer simulations, and “no point-of-care tests approved for home use are currently available.”

The Moonshot project combines sky-high hopes for non-existent technology with astronomical cost: how far will it go before it crashes back to earth?

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