The writer is director-general of the british chambers of commerce
I wish mike coupe well. by taking over the ailing nhs testing operation, the former sainsburys boss has the single most important economic role in all of the uk.
Yes, you read that right: economic. business conditions remain weak across the uk and the resurgence of coronavirus is reigniting its negative knock-on effect on businesses and livelihoods. the tools we have at our disposal remain blunt and it errors mean that thousands of cases are still slipping between the cracks.
The success or failure of the test and trace system over the coming weeks will determine whether we can avoid more job-destroying restrictions and lockdowns.
That makes it more important to the uk economy than downing streets latest spending plans and programmes. fiscal stimulus is no substitute for an economy that is open and able to operate. we are going to have to live with covid-19 and manage its impact for months, or even years. we must get to a point where employees can feel confident going to work, businesses can stay open for customers and suppliers and international trade and travel can restart successfully. broad-based mass testing is key to making it happen.
But the current test and trace system is not up to the task. too many business owners, their employees and their families have been unable to secure tests, causing both domestic and workplace problems. companies in higher-risk sectors often cannot get the tests they need to keep their people safe. working parents are having to take time off as their children, beset with coughs and colds, cant get the tests needed to rule out a covid-19 infection.the return of workers to the uks city centres, already slower and weaker than in any other european country, is imperilled.
The governments sudden u-turn, telling office workers to work from home again, is a clear indictment of the fragility of the testing infrastructure. if it had been working properly, this confidence-killing yo-yo effect could have been prevented. yet the uk government, unlike many international peers, has stubbornly resisted the use of a range of different testing options limiting the private sectors ability to bring innovation and speed to the system.
The solutions are right in front of us. first, link more types of tests to the nhs test and trace system. none of the tests available is perfect, but rapid testing with follow-ups where required would help keep businesses and schools open and operating. it would also help our airports and restore key business connections around the world.
Second, use the governments purchasing power to drive down testing costs for private employers. few companies can afford to pay 150-a-time for each employee. with clear standards and procurement at scale, frequent low-cost testing could be introduced in workplaces of all sizes and sectors.
Third, harness private sector and university partners to rapidly increase test-processing capacity. businesses have offered help and, with capacity still lagging behind demand in many areas, these offers should be taken up.
Finally, share the load. many of todays problems are a result of decisions taken to centralise everything six months ago. an idealised national system has become the enemy of a functional one. resources and responsibilities should be devolved to local and regional level, as needed.
Partnership between the public and private sectors, both nationally and locally, is more important than ever. it is the best way to avoid another broad-based national lockdown. to succeed, we need everyone working on coronavirus testing to work together. lets set any differences aside, and deliver an improved test and trace system. millions of jobs and the viability of our city centres, airports, supply chains and industries depend on it.