The government wants people back to work as soon as possible—even if it puts them at risk.
Tory health secretary Matt Hancock last week said he wants to issue “immunity passports” to those who have had the coronavirus. He said new antibody tests could determine whether people are resistant to the virus and can safely be given clearance to go back to work.
Hancock insists this will allow thousands of frontline health workers to return to work, knowing they cannot be harmed by or pass on the coronavirus. Once established in the NHS, the passports could then be rolled out to allow shops and businesses to reopen and relax the government’s “stay at home” rules.
But there are grave dangers to Hancock’s strategy, which rests on the availability of reliable testing kits.
These antibody tests are different from those used to determine whether someone currently has Covid-19. That’s because once the virus has been defeated it will no longer show up as an infection.
The antibody tests don’t look for the presence of the virus in our noses and throats. They look for signs that our immune systems “remember” the coronavirus and immediately start attacking it before it can multiply through taking over healthy cells.
That’s the expected reaction of a person who has had the virus and whose body knows how to defeat it.
To be of any use, the tests have to be able to distinguish between Covid-19 and the other six strains of coronavirus known to affect humans. If the tests yield positive results for patients who have come into contact with one of the others, people could be declared “immune” when they aren’t.
The difficulty of getting the tests right means that many of the kits are at best unproven.
Inaccurate testing kits are already being produced in their millions and have the potential to do untold damage. They could lead to health workers returning from self-isolation thinking they are safe only to be struck down by the virus.
Last month virologists in Wuhan, China, claimed they had developed a test which could diagnose Covid-19 in 15 minutes. But it can take between eight days and two weeks after the infection has begun for people to start developing antibodies to the virus.
There are further difficulties with the testing.
No one is sure for how long our immune systems will remember the current strain of the coronavirus.
Many thousands of people would need to be tested regularly over many months to find out how long immunity could be expected to last. Only that level of mass testing could produce the data need to make a good estimate.
The alternative would mean millions of people in Britain—and billions across the world—would need to be tested repeatedly to ensure they are still safe from Covid-19.
Hancock’s idea of a quick test, a stamp in your passport, and a quick return to work is a dangerous pipedream.
It reveals the dark heart of the Tory strategy for the virus. The main priority for the government is to get the economy moving sooner than Britain’s rivals, not the protection of people’s health.