To test, and not to count the cost

The message from our Betters was to save granny, stop the spread, and gain Christmas reassurance by testing before you visited her for Christmas. So naturally enough yesterday evening’s Mail headline was about all the people who’d tested positive at family gatherings, how it would cause a post-Christmas surge, and of course how that would necessitate all kinds of further restrictions.

Given the government’s £1/2 billion annual investment in propaganda, this headline may well be tosh. But if not it shows the insanity we’ve come to: you visit the vulnerable relatives, and only then instead of eating, playing charades or watching the Queen, you spend the day doing lateral flow tests that show you shouldn’t have come in the first place.

Before 2020, when the Great Inversion of science occurred, mass-testing the symptomless and contact-tracing in the endemic phase of a novel virus was widely recognised to be totally pointless, and here is the proof:

Being based on the meaningless figure of total positive tests, at a time when these have corresponded to the amount of testing since July, this map too is meaningless, given that when it was covered in summery shades of green there was roughly as much COVID about as now. But it does show the pointlessness of trying to pin down cases and stop them spreading the virus. Even if you tested 10% of people daily with a reliable test, 90% of infections will be unchecked. You may reduce the number of grey squirrels in your garden with an air-gun, but you’re not going to reduce their national population that way. You won’t even save your own bird-feeder for long.

So in the Christmas panic, people did LFTs to find their symptomless Omicron, which the South Africans say only tests positive a day into symptoms. Then they did their last minute shopping in Tesco, where most people hadn’t tested. My daughter’s village cancelled its Christmas Day parish church service, presumably because someone in a community already mostly recovered from COVID tested positive. Elsewhere, churches didn’t close, but stuck to the government advice that masks be worn at all times – except when singing.

I’ve covered the uselessness of testing many times before, but given its obvious ineffectiveness in doing anything to curb the spread of Omicron (or any other variant before it), let’s just remember the cost.

The cost to the NHS of a lateral flow test is between £15 and £30. They are provided free – which actually means their cost is added to the escalating tax bills of the poor and their descendants, helping to fuel the inflation that is making them poorer by the week. Maybe this is what Boris meant by “the remorseless logic of exponential growth,” since that has nothing to do with epidemiology.

PCRs are pricier, but hard to cost accurately, especially at a time when many tests are also sequenced to assess the prevalanece of Omicron. A Scottish FOI request produced this:

PCR Testing Range Average £19 - £43 per test dependant on location of test and type of analyser used.
Sequence PCR Sample Average £26 - £69 per test dependant on location of test and type of analyser used.

We ought really to add in the admin and infrastructure costs of the T&T system. But let’s instead be generous and suggest a conservative £20 for an LFT, and £30 for a PCR. In the week up to Christmas, 10 million tests were done, 2/3 being LFTs and 1/3 PCRs. A back-of-envelope calculation shows a cost of upwards of £150m for the former, and £100m for the latter, which is to say we spent over a quarter of a billion pounds on testing in just one week, with no demonstrable effect on anything except the level of fear, loss of work, loss of socialising, and loss of Christmas worship.

You can train over a thousand doctors for that. And since the testing goes on and on, you could have used the money to build a new hospital every fortnight. But of course, Britain can’t possibly afford expenditure like that, so instead:

Consequently, our duty is clear for 2022. We must save the NHS from imminent collapse in the best way we can – SWAB FOR VICTORY!

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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