In the Thursday 8pm “clapping for the NHS” on 2 April 2020, many people chanted “Test! Test! Test! PPE!”
Health workers are pressing the government on its failure to meet its promises to expand testing hugely, to make PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] available to all, and to agree adequate PPE guidelines for health workers.
So, even, are NHS bosses. NHS Providers, a confederation of NHS hospital, mental health, community, and ambulance trusts, said on 3 April: “There are still trusts that are unable to begin testing, and lack of swabs, reagents and test kits is a continuing concern”.
They welcomed upgraded PPE guidance, but said: “There are still parts of the health service lacking in the right kit”.
The government has been evasive about why it has failed to meet its own promises and targets on testing and PPE. One factor cited by academics is the government’s failure to mobilise university and research-institute facilities onto the task of processing tests.
Even the Trump administration in the USA has felt obliged to use a law from the Korean war, the Defence Production Act, to force General Motors into producing ventilators for the USA without dilly-dallying and haggling over terms. Spain and Ireland have nationalised their private hospitals.
The labour movement should demand that testing facilities and industries producing tests, PPE, and ventilators and their inputs be requisitioned (i.e. taken under emergency public ownership and control).
We should demand also workers’ control: health workers’ and production workers’ unions, with the assistance of experts, should be able to check and scrutinise the plans to increase supply, and blow whistles when they see obstacles.
Germany and Australia have both tested over one in a hundred of their populations, and South Korea about one in 110.
The UK, as of 5 April, has tested one in 340, only onethird of South Korea’s level.
Yet the UK still has comparatively big chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries. It has the biggest biotech industry in Europe. It has five out of the top eight universities outside the USA for biological sciences.
The NHS has been run for years on the basis of stretching constantly cash-starved resources to meet immediate and visible “market demands”, a pattern which leaves little scope for building up spare capacity and reserves to cover the unpredicted, and probably makes it difficult to switch into emergency-expansion mode.
But with the advantages to hand, UK industry could be, should be, must be mobilised to produce enough tests, PPE, and ventilators to serve this country, plus, on top of that, a large surplus to be exported to countries which don’t have the industrial base for emergency production. The virus has not yet gone into freewheeling explosive spread in poorer countries. Not yet. Iran, which saw early rapid growth, has reported stable or declining daily numbers of new cases since 28 March, and stable or declining daily numbers of death since 19 March.
One factor there may be a younger population. In Iran, 4% of the population is over 70, and thus at special risk from Covid-19. In Italy, it’s 16% (and in the UK, 11%).
So far the highest death rates in proportion to population are in Italy and Spain (between 250 and 270 per million). Then follow Belgium, the Netherlands, and France (between 125 and 103 per million).
Even hard-hit Iran is on a lower level, at 43 per million. If an explosive impact of the epidemic in poorer countries can be delayed sufficiently that, by the time it comes, masses of spare medical equipment can be shipped from richer countries, or conceivably even vaccines or partial treatments are available, then millions of lives will be saved