The UK government was heavily criticized for its response during the first wave of Covid-19. Its policy of local lockdowns was being assailed from all sides as it did not reflect the reality of where and how the virus was spreading. If some mayors argue they could have done better if the decision-making was decentralized, Ryan Wain and Dan Sleat, from the Tony Blair Institute, claim in contrast that political leadership at the top with clear objectives can be a game-changer. Anuchika Stanislaus, International Affairs Officer at Institut Montaigne asked them both their views on past and current british strategy.
How can data be mobilized to support immunization policies and better target priority groups? What monitoring systems could be put in place during the vaccination campaign and afterwards?
When the UK set up its testing programme, one of the measures the Tony Blair Institute called for very early on was a Minister for testing: someone in a senior position in government who would have the responsibility of empowering and bringing together the critical areas of logistics, manufacturing, scientists, innovators, data collection. All of these different constituent parts are critical in making up the right mass testing regime and need to sit under one roof. This proposal was not followed. As a result, the governance of mass testing ended up fragmented. If nobody had a holistic overview of all those different aspects of mass testing, it is no surprise mistakes were made early on, we can't repeat those mistakes again with vaccines. We will need political leadership at the top. In France and in the UK, we believe there should be a Senior Minister responsible for vaccines, reporting respectively to Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson. These ministers would have an overview and oversight of the trials that take place, they would be able to monitor the vaccines, to repurpose storage, logistics and transport facilities to make sure we have the right infrastructure in place to move the vaccines around the country quickly, and at scale. On the issue of data, they would work with technology providers, with Primary Health Care, hospitals and pharmacies, while making sure that they are organizing and providing oversight.
In the UK, testing capacity was initially very limited, with capacity to test 5,000 people a day. This simply wasn't enough to get a real grip on this crisis. As a result, health secretary Matt Hancock, who oversees the NHS, ended up setting a target of 500,000 tests a day. On the one hand, this was a great announcement: it meant that everyone was geared towards this national mission of trying to increase testing numbers. On the other hand, we quickly identified that within the available tests there were different types:
- there are some tests which are less accurate but quicker (rapid antigen tests);
- there are some tests which reveal whether you've had the virus and are contagious (PCR-based tests);
- there are some tests which are highly accurate, can detect if you have the virus and take a lot of time because they need to be taken to the lab (antibody tests).