The prime minister warned colleagues when they returned to Westminster a couple of weeks ago the government ship was sailing into “choppy waters” and faced “turbulence ahead”.
He perhaps didn’t quite expect to hit such headwinds so soon, but already he is in the midst of a perfect storm of children returning to school, a big uptick in COVID cases and a testing system under immense strain.
Around the country the stories keep coming of frustrated and worried parents and teachers struggling to get tests for themselves and for children. Demand is booming, the system is struggling and the pressure is now on the government to fix the problem – and fix it fast.
The prime minister was at pains during his appearances at Prime Minister’s Questions and the Liaison Committee of senior MPs to trumpet testing capacity, reminding his audience that the UK “compares extremely well with other countries” as he repeated his promise to get capacity running at 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
But he admitted too that there was simply were not enough tests to meet demand while his health secretary has said it will take “weeks” to resolve these problems.
The government is racing to build capacity but it is also going to have to manage demand.
Ministers and government figures privately say the spike in demand is being driven in part not just by the rise in cases – up to nearly 4,000 on Wednesday – but the “worried well” seeking tests when they don’t actually have symptoms.
The government is toughening up the language around test request forms to try to discourage people taking tests if they don’t have symptoms, but acknowledge that it might have to be more muscular in its administration of tests and introduce some sort of triage system to manage distribution.
“Testing is a finite resource and we have to make choices about how we best use finite resources,” said one government figure. This could take the form of priority lists of who should have access to tests, rather like at the beginning of the crisis when tests were in such short supply only health workers were eligible.
Teaching unions are pressing for better access to tests and quicker turnaround times in order to keep classrooms open, amid warnings that the “increasingly out of control” situation could force widespread closures of schools in the weeks ahead – something the prime minister has made it a priority to avoid.
If the crisis deepens, the government might be forced to ration tests with NHS workers, care homes, other key workers and schools likely to be first on the lists.
The government should get credit for rapidly building testing capacity, but the spectre of the system stuttering so soon into the school term is uncomfortable – particularly since this spike in demand was so foreseeable.
For months ministers have trumpeted testing as the main tool through which we are going to navigate living with COVID-19, but the “world beating” testing system the PM promised has yet to materialise.
That is not just deeply embarrassing for the government but it is deeply worrying as we head into the winter.
With the headwinds building already – on cases, on mortality rates, on local lockdowns, the testing problems need resolving imminently, before the hostile weather really kicks in.