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Sun 25 October 2020
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Sam Bright reports on how the small print of one Government contract reveals the true length of time it expects to be battling COVID-19

“We’ve turned the tide” on COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced at a Downing Street briefing on 16 June.

In recent weeks, the general public has been lobbied to get back to the office, make trips abroad and generally return to a (relatively) normal existence.

However, with large sections of the country now reviving restrictions, and a two-week national lockdown muted, it appears we are far from dispatching this deadly virus.

And while the Government has been bombastic in the media about overcoming COVID-19, the small print of its policies reveals a different attitude.

Last week, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) invited bids for a new COVID-19 contract. Worth between £384 and £785 million, the successful firm will be required to pick up, package and deliver an average of 200,000 Coronavirus home testing kits a day, across the country.

But the length of the contract is perhaps its most illuminating detail. The DHSC says the contract will run for at least two years, “plus an optional six month extension”.

This is a blunt appraisal of how quickly the country, and the world, can rid itself of the Coronavirus. While Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been drumming up speculation of a vaccine early next year, and President Donald Trump attempts to rush one out before November’s US election, the prospect of returning to normality seems distant.

“It is quite clear from what is going on behind the scenes the Government isn’t being straight with the British public,” Professor John Ashton, former Regional Director of Public Health for North West England, told Byline Times.

“What is paramount is that if we’re ever going to get on top of this the lies must stop and the Government must reach out beyond its personal arrogance to the whole of the country to fight the greatest threat in 100 years.”


This new contract also represents a huge investment in Coronavirus home testing. Currently, the Government is delivering roughly 150,000 home testing kits a week, which will increase to approximately 1.4 million, if the terms of this new contract are delivered.

The DHSC clearly sees the benefit of ramping up home testing, and is willing to spend hundreds of millions to do so.

However, home testing is a core element of the UK’s faltering testing regime, which is now only delivering 33% of test results in 24 hours. Home testing is one of the worst performing areas, with people tested at home waiting on average 82 hours to receive their results, during the latest week of recorded data. The only method of testing with a worse record is satellite centre testing, with results delivered on average in 97 hours.

Companies including Amazon have been responsible for delivering home testing kits in recent months, and due to the size of the new contract it is expected that a big delivery company will be granted the tender.

However, there have been no suggestions that delivery companies are responsible for the delays in home testing results, with private labs receiving much of the blame.

In charge of ensuring the smooth running of this system is Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace and newly-appointed chair of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP). The latter organisation will replace Public Health England (PHE) and will be tasked with ensuring that the country has the necessary capacity to deal with infectious diseases.

Considered to be an ally of the Conservative Government, Harding’s appointment to these senior health roles has been labelled a political decision. Harding was ennobled by David Cameron in 2014 and her husband, Conservative MP John Penrose, sits on the advisory board of the libertarian ‘think tank’ 1828, which has called for the NHS to be scrapped and replaced with an insurance-based system.

Already her performance is being questioned as the UK suffers a testing emergency just before an expected second, winter wave of COVID-19.

Judging by the contracts being pumped out by the Government, it seems as though this won’t be a temporary affair.


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