Will Face Coverings Mask Boris Johnson’s Problems With Test And Trace?

Reaching people with covid remains the key task.

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Masking the problem?

Oh, the irony. Boris Johnson, who famously described women wearing burkas as looking like “bank robbers”, is from Friday legally requiring the public to wear face coverings in shops. On Thursday, as he toured Scotland, the PM himself was sporting a black mask that made him look like an albino Dick Turpin.

And in a double irony, the mass face mask wearing that will be compulsory in shops, cafes and supermarkets is not an act of ‘stand-and-deliver’ plunder but of self-interested selflessness. The science suggests that covering up does not protect you much from others who have coronavirus, but it does protect others if you unwittingly have the disease.‌

The new practice (well, new to England) is in many ways the pandemic-induced version of the Golden Rule that has powered moral codes and religions for centuries. As the second commandment lyrically put it, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Way back on March 3, when the ‘Three Amigos’ No.10 press conferences of Johnson, Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance first began, it was the chief medical officer who predicted: “The response of the British public to disasters and emergencies is extraordinary outbreaks of altruism.” But even though South Koreans and Japanese had long worn masks, that particular altruism wasn’t encouraged by Whitty or the government early in the covid wars.

As we all get used to the new facial fashions (just as every other country apart from the US seems to be doing with little fuss) there’s even a hope that they could help stop the spread of flu this coming winter. One obvious benefit is that they will very visibly remind the public that despite ‘unlockdown’, this virus is lurking invisibly. At a stroke, they will do more to ram home the need for caution than No.10’s lame ‘Stay Alert’ slogan, a line that few can remember.

Of course, the real defence against a second spike, or at least means of squeezing a second spike, is not a multicoloured mask. It is the NHS Test and Trace system. And today there was finally some good news from its chief Dido Harding, as the percentage of people testing positive for Covid and being reached by the system hit 79.7%. Among their contacts, 77.9% were reached. That’s just shy of the magic 80% Sage says is needed to make the whole thing viable.

There was some bad news for the PM too though, or at least his target of turning round most tests within 24 hours by the end of June. The numbers on that went backwards for the second week in a row, with just 71.4% of ‘in-person’ tests completed within the timeframe. Still, the numbers for results returned “by the end of the next day” are better, and Harding clearly believes that’s what matters most.

Like many businesspeople, Harding is a big believer in the “incremental gains” philosophy that saw Sir Dave Brailsford turn British cyclists into Olympic giants. If you disregard Johnson’s own target, she can claim some success in slowly improving the test and trace system to get it to a place where we can all trust it will snuff out the disease in local outbreaks. Combined with local public health knowledge, maybe the dire 50% contact rates in places like Blackburn can be improved, and not so incrementally.‌

There was another major shift in emphasis today on testing, however. Although no one in government will say it explicitly, the home testing kits are quietly being killed off. These whizzo swabs (whose posting out helped Matt Hancock his 100k a day target met, but also got him into trouble with the statistics authority) just can’t be reliably turned around within 24 hours (that’s why they were never in the PM’s target). They will still be used to provide negative tests for people waiting for hospital operations, but as a positive indicator of covid their use will wither on the vine.

Few will lament the home kit’s demise. And the other shift today was the announcement that there will be at least 200 more walk-in test centres, massively expanding the 15 at present, by the end of October. The ‘ambition’ (not a target, don’t be silly) is to ensure everyone in an urban area will be just 30 minutes’ walk away from a test. In rural areas, everyone will be a 30 minute drive away from a test.

Crucially, these testing centres can turn round results far faster than home kits. They can also help with translation for people with English as a second language and give access to the poorest who don’t have a car.

As I pointed out earlier this week, having blundered early on in key areas the real test for the government is whether it can learn from its mistakes as it goes along through this pandemic. The one big new mistake could however be the withdrawal of furlough in September. Will the Treasury finally change course on that too, allowing targeted sectors to keep getting the money, if there’s a swift spike in unemployment?‌

If not, Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson could both be portrayed not as bank robbers, but as the nation’s job robbers in chief - just as we brace for that second wave. There’ll be no point going into the shops, mask or no mask, if those people have no wages to spend.

Quote Of The Day

“Considerable gaps remain in the most difficult areas, that is, the so-called level playing field and on fisheries.”

David Frost, UK negotiator on a new EU trade deal

Thursday Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson sparked fury from Nicola Sturgeon when he claimed that an independent Scotland would not have had the financial muscle to stop coronavirus causing an economic “disaster”. The “sheer might” of the UK union had been proven, he said on a visit that avoided the general Scottish public.

Public Health England published full guidance on wearing face coverings in shops, less than 12 hours before the new rules come into force. It will be compulsory to wear one in cafes like Pret A Manger when buying food and drink to takeaway. But if you sit down and eat/drink you can remove the mask.

The UK and EU have both said they still remain some way off reaching a post-Brexit trade agreement, following the latest negotiations in London.

Howard Beckett, one of Keir Starmer’s most vociferous critics, was confirmed as having lost to Steve Turner for the crucial endorsement of the United Left faction of Unite the union.

Gavin Williamson is facing calls to provide extra funding for school cleaning after a new Unison survey suggested heads were struggling to make premises Covid-secure for pupils ahead of reopening in September.

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