A ruinous depression awaits if we don’t up our game on testing

Given the difficulties the UK has faced in achieving even the present, inadequate scale of testing and tracing, this might seem a tall order. Yet it cannot be beyond the wit of the private sector to answer the call.

Against the damage currently being inflicted on economies, almost any cost is going to seem trivial.

“If we contrast a non-specific policy of social distance with a targeted policy guided by frequent testing that is equally effective at containing the virus,” says Romer, “how much more disruptive is the non-specific policy? Answer? Way more disruptive.”

What Romer’s simulations show is that if we use a test to determine who gets put into isolation, the fraction of the population that needs to be confined and isolated is dramatically smaller than the blanket approach of lockdown. “These benefits are available even with an imperfect test and without doing any contact tracing,” he argues. “An economy can survive with 10pc of the population in isolation. It can’t survive with 50pc.”

As I say, all this is easier said than done. But though the Government’s Covid testing response has so far displayed a high level of incompetence which gives very little reason to believe it is ever going to get on top of the problem, it does belatedly seem to be following broadly the right path.

The focus on testing is plainly the right response, but it has to be at a level where tests are handed out like confetti, at the entrances to theatres and restaurants, or before passengers board a plane, and it needs to deliver close to instantaneous results.

The task needs approaching with all the resource and determination of a latter-day Manhattan Project, with industry re-engineered for the purpose. If we don’t, then a depression does indeed start to look all too possible, with disastrous geopolitical consequences as countries seek to pin the blame on one another.

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