by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 30
April 2020
Explainer
10:48

Stop obsessing over the 100,000 test target

Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged the NHS would be carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April

It’s the last day of April, by which date Matt Hancock had pledged the NHS would be carrying out 100,000 tests a day. He has since rowed it back to suggest that they would have the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests a day. But that’s not what he originally said.

I thought now would be an appropriate time to share an(other) email I got off a lab worker at the start of this week:

Demand is relatively low and seems to be falling. My unreliable beer-mat maths suggest that, with current staffing and equipment, but without reagent limitations, the local lab could process at least 500% of current demand daily.

The reagent thing is not really an obstacle right now, it only influences the speed of analysis. There simply is not a huge amount to test at this moment. The testing capacity has become more widely distributed over more hospitals than it was just two weeks ago, but even taking account of this, demand seems not to be ramping up quite as expected.

- Anonymous

I don’t know why demand isn’t going up — optimistically, it could be because social distancing and lockdown has reduced infections, so fewer people are showing symptoms; pessimistically, it could be that the testing centres are widely spread out, and essentially impossible for many to get to, especially if they’re ill and don’t have a car. Likely it’s a mix of both.

Whatever the reason, my correspondent says: “Arbitrary testing targets will probably just cause illogical and possibly detrimental changes to the system that we could do without.”

Giving a specific target made the testing regime a hotbed for Goodhart’s law. We don’t actually care whether 100,000 people are tested rather than 97,000 or even 52,000; we do care whether all the people who should be tested are being tested, without having to get on a bus for an hour while infectious.

But now that’s the mark of whether the government has succeeded or failed. Political journalists are “watching the numbers carefully” to see if they make it, as though they’re seeing if they have the votes in parliament; and Hancock is encouraging Tory members to sign up for tests, presumably to help them get closer to the target.

This is silly. None of it matters. It was a bad idea on the government’s part to give this arbitrary target; it is unhelpful of journalists to concentrate on it as though it’s important. The key is whether people who need testing can be tested. Forget the 100,000.

Comment


  • May 7, 2020
    Tom Chivers identified the system which the TV Leftwing political hacks used to try to get a GOTCHA over a Tory government minister. This was just a political ploy to rubbish the government. The trap the Luvies failed to see: Criticism of the governments efforts over their COVID-19 campaign have... Read more

  • May 3, 2020
    But he did not fail. He smashed his target. Obviously he had to pull a number of stokes to do it, but it was important to show the immense challenges could be overcome and thereby give confidence that the even bigger challenge which is to get out of this mess and get our economy back in some... Read more

  • May 3, 2020
    To eradicate the virus we'll need the capability to test millions a day and get more or less instant results. I'd like to see journo's sticking that on the table and challenging the government to say it's unnecessary or unachievable. Read more

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