Many Britons have found themselves despairing over the dashed prospects of a COVID-free Christmas ever since Boris Johnson announced a second national lockdown just over a week ago. For many of these same Britons, this despair is accompanied by a nagging question: if it’s been almost half a year since the country went into its first lockdown and we haven’t developed any other tactics for fighting this pandemic, how far have we really come?
It’s a depressing question. But fortunately, the answer might not be.
Last Friday, Liverpool City Council launched a new mass testing programme for all residents. Now, if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that we have kept tabs on Liverpool throughout the whole period following the first lockdown which has seen the city struggling to find its feet, enduring sporadic bursts of new measures and regulations that have isolated the area from the rest of the country. A case could be made that, as a result of its uniquely high rates of infection throughout the pandemic, Liverpool has had to serve as a sort of testing-ground for the government’s new strategies. It was one of the first areas of the UK to undergo a local lockdown and it had lived under Level 3 restrictions for a few weeks before that nation-wide system of classifications were introduced.
And with the launch of this new programme, Liverpool is once again playing the role of the government’s crash-test dummy. How so?
Well, the city’s new mass testing programme is the first in the UK to be based only on rapid tests. Importantly, this also means that they are using rapid tests that are approved by the national government, making them the first of their kind to have received the green light from Westminster since the pandemic came to British shores in March. Again, any familiarity with this blog will tell you that this is exactly the sort of tactic for which Lab Solutions have been passionately advocating since the first national lockdown.
With rapid testing, Liverpool’s residents might be able to live with more freedom than the rest of the country. Liverpool’s rapid tests can tell you whether you are currently infectious within an hour and the results hold for at least 24 hours, meaning that businesses might be able to re-open by only putting employees on shift who can display the text message they received indicating a negative result that morning. Similarly, customers can enter the premises on the same condition, displaying their own negative result at the door. In all likelihood, this might actually increase employment, given that local business would have to maintain a larger work-force in order to mitigate periodic loss of staff who are self-isolating.
In any case, you should be watching Liverpool closely over the coming weeks. This news is more than a ray of hope in what has been, for so many, a rather dismal winter.
A number of European countries have been hit by a second wave of COVID-19 infections – including, unfortunately, the UK – but Spain has been hit the hardest. Today, the Prime Minister will lay out his plans for the next stage of the UK’s response, rumoured to include a ‘three-tiered lockdown system’ that will devolve greater powers to local government, but chances are it won’t include the sorts of measures that the Spanish government are pursuing in infection-hotspots like Madrid.
Madrid has become one of the first major cities in the world to attempt rapid testing on a large scale. In certain neighbourhoods with climbing infection rates, like Entrevías, residents are contacted via text to attend a drop-in clinic. Local authorities intend to test as many people as possible in these areas. When residents arrive at the clinic, an external temperature reading is taken with a non-contact infrared thermometer (like the one included in our Return2Work kit).
This is an unexpected feature of the scheme but the logic is clear. Taking the patient’s temperature will give the authorities information about their condition which might not be captured by the rapid test. For example, the patient may return a negative test but still have a temperature indicative of infection, meaning that the patient may indeed have COVID-19 but as yet remains non-contagious. This may mean that they will have to return the following day for another rapid test to track their progress, as well as receiving a more comprehensive PCR test from a local hospital to see if they have contracted a smaller amount of COVID-19. It also means that the margin for error in the test’s 93% accuracy-rate might be curbed by giving an indication as to when a patient might have received a false negative.
Once inside the drop-in clinic, a nasal swab is taken by a trained volunteer, placed in the buffer solution to settle and then squeezed onto the cassette. The resident then waits just 15 minutes for the results. Depending on the result, the resident may be free to return to work or must self-isolate – which potentially means that those they live or have had significant contact with must do so, as well.
We will have to watch cautiously over the next few weeks to see whether this programme is able to curb the infection rates in Madrid. But by any reasonable estimate, it seems highly likely to do so. With these tests being so cheap at just €5 (or £4.50), the authorities can test huge numbers of people, detecting infectious residents as soon as possible, even if they are asymptomatic. Similarly, it also identifies safe residents, allowing local business to continue its recovery where possible, so that those who have to self-isolate are supported by a network of those who currently do not.
It’s important to remember this, however: we have known that such a scheme was possible for months. Britain should have been the first to implement one, not Spain.
We must be next.
To view our range of products for COVID-19 protection, including our rapid test kits, take a look at our online shop.
This is a brief update to signal-boost this peer-reviewed article that was recently published by a group of Harvard virologists in the New England Journal of Medicine. It outlines a numbed of the developments that we have covered on this blog in the last few months, as well going into more detail on the current scientific understanding of rapid testing and COVID-19.
It’s very short and accessible, so give it a read. It should only take up a few minutes of your time. If it makes some sense to you, share it with your colleagues, friends and family. Perhaps, you might even consider contacting your MP to ask if the government is aware of this research.
Over the last few weeks, primary and secondary schools have been reopening. In the coming weeks, many teenagers will also go off to universities. It has been estimated that three children in a thousand will walk into the classroom with COVID-19. And no one will know until the school has to be closed on account of an outbreak.
This is a risk that affects your children. And in turn, this becomes a risk to many of the older people in their lives, including you and your loved ones.
Perhaps, as they have done so far, the government will continue to respond to these outbreaks with local lockdowns or increased restrictions on social gatherings outside of educational institutions.
But what about prevention?
A rising number of immunologists have been excited to discover that rapid tests can provide precisely this.
A rapid test tells you whether you have COVID-19 in under 15 minutes and can be done by you at home.
Simply, take a nasal swab. Place it in the test tube and add the buffer solution. Then, place the strip in the solution and wait 15 minutes for your results.
By testing yourself and your family regularly, you will be made aware of your infection-status as soon as possible, regardless of whether you have symptoms. It is precisely this capability which could make rapid testing one of the most effective tools that we have to mitigate the dangers of the COVID-19 virus.
But, I hear you say, rapid tests are inaccurate, right?
Well, think about it like this. Before you become infectious, you need to have a certain amount of viral material – that’s the stuff of the virus, all its replications – in your body. In other words, you need to pass a certain threshold before other people can catch the virus from you.
Some researchers were worried about rapid testing because it couldn’t detect the smaller amounts of the virus, the amounts below that threshold. Soon, however, they realised that it reliably detected those amounts above the threshold. Put simply, if you’re infectious, a rapid test will give you a positive result.
So, a rapid test tells us exactly what we need to know. But the NHS already provides accurate tests, so why do we need rapid tests?
You can probably guess the answer if you’ve already taken an NHS test: you have to wait at least 48 hours for your results. Even the new tests, lauded for their speed, take 90 minutes and require you to travel to an NHS drive-through centre. If you saw our last blog, you’ll also know that this system is crumbling. A rapid test, however, can be conducted wherever you are and delivers results in just 15 minutes.
So, rapid testing is convenient, easy-to-use and gives precisely the results that we need. OK, but what am I asking you to do?
First, share this blog post with colleagues, friends and family members. Dispelling the myths and misconceptions around rapid testing is an essential first step.
Then, I urge you to use whatever influence you have to call on the government and the Prime Minister to consider daily rapid testing for all schools, colleges and universities in order to prevent further lockdowns and restrictions. We must act now to ensure the health and stability of Britain.
On Tuesday, the BBC Breakfast ran a report on the government’s COVID-19 testing initiatives in the UK. It was pretty damning.
The main take-away from the report was the link between test shortages and staff shortages. This link should be considered from two perspectives. Firstly, test shortages in the NHS have forced Trusts to cut down on staff and volunteers who are not needed. Of course, this decision has only increased the workload for remaining staff – for example, NHS technicians processing the tests have complained about the lack of staff, claiming that it has only aggravated extant problems and contributed to increased waiting times for patients. Relatedly, known problems with the accessibility of drop-in test centres have been deepened by the shortage, with some patients being forced to drive up to 100 miles to find an operative centre.
Secondly, such failures within the NHS have had rather troubling effects on the general population’s ability to work. Increased waiting times and lack of accessibility, all caused by or intensified by the general lack of tests, have meant that those with symptoms who have been requested by their workplace to get tested will spend longer off work. Paired with the localised lockdowns in various areas of the country, these hiatuses will be hindering what had previously appeared to be a somewhat promising economic recovery.
In their desperation to return to work, many Britons have turned to the private sector. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these tests remain priced outside the average person’s budget, mostly because of the type of tests available.
However, rapid testing, which has seen an upsurge in support from the scientific community in recent months, is cheap, and it delivers results in just 15 minutes – a time to which no other type of COVID-19 test even comes close.
For a number of months on this blog, I have been advocating for the NHS to switch to rapid testing. Rapid testing has an advantage over PCR testing in all the areas that the latter is currently failing. Firstly, rapid tests can be mass produced on a superior scale at lower costs. Secondly, the test does not require expert processing, freeing up the overworked laboratory technicians that currently keep the PCR testing programme running. This also means that far more tests can be done by the patients themselves at home, easing the pressure on drop-in centres.
If these reforms could be implemented, we might see an end to unnecessarily long wait times and a rejuvenated NHS, better equipped to deal with the ongoing pandemic. If we are to continue our steady recovery from lockdown, it seems essential that this is done, and quick.
If you are in need of a rapid test, take a look at our product range on our website.
On Monday, Boris Johnson’s government introduced a number of laws which prohibit gatherings of more than 6 people.
This news comes on the back of rising infection rates and other reports on the systemic failure of the UK’s COVID-19 testing infrastructure. Many have cited the inefficiencies of the currently-dominant PCR tests in dealing with such periodic infection spikes, especially in a country which has been slowly attempting to restart its economy.
Now, it’s worth going over the content of these laws in a bit of detail since, as usual, there has been a lot of confusion surrounding them. First off, these new measures override the social distancing rules that have been in force since the beginning of August. Obviously, this means that the ban on gatherings of more than 30 people has been replaced but more surprisingly, the talk of households has also been scrapped. Previously, members of two separate households could meet inside and all sorts of complicated limits on number of households held when gathering in venues or outside.
But the thinking behind these new rules emphasises simplicity of understanding and a corresponding strength of enforcement. From now on, if there are more than 6 of you mixing anywhere at any time, no matter how many different households you are all from, you’ll be fined and asked to disperse. Simple as that.
On that note, the £100 fine that we’ve all heard so much about applies to all individuals involved in an illegal gathering. That’s each and every person, so scrap your plans to ignore the rules and just split the cost. It rises in increments up to £3,200, I should add, although the circumstances in which you’d be charged any of the extra amounts are unclear.
You might have also noticed that these rules apply everywhere. Whether you’re celebrating with friends at the pub, watching Tenet with your mates at the cinema, having a barbecue in your garden or playing boardgames with some work colleagues at home, you’re subject to these rules. There are a number of exceptions, including workplaces, educational institutions, group sports, funerals and weddings. Find the full list of exempt activities here.
And before you ask how the police will know that you’re watching Line of Duty in your house with more than 5 friends, the government have explicitly encouraged your neighbours to alert the police if they suspect anything.
For many of us, these measures are a shock. We’ve been under varying levels of lockdown since March, now, and many have taken solace in the fact that, slowly but surely, things were gradually getting better. After such a prolonged fight against COVID-19, how could we still be facing such restrictions on our daily lives?
Unfortunately, as many of you know, it is because over the last month and especially over the last few weeks, cases have been steadily rising, with intermittent but worryingly large spikes. For example, last Friday, we saw cases rise by 3,539, which, for context, places us at the lower end of the sort of curve which sent us all into lockdown in March. So, there are very real reasons why this law has been introduced and therefore, why you should take them seriously.
Now, there might be a number of ways that such measures could have been avoided or be stopped. As a number of reports have shown, the government have failed to create a robust testing apparatus, partly as a result of their dependence on slower testing methods. However, rapid tests, which deliver results in 15 minutes, are becoming increasingly available and thus more capable of meeting the current levels of demand. With faster, cheaper tests like these, the government might be able to avoid the sorts of measures that were introduced on Monday whilst easing our economy back into first gear.
If you think you might be interested in rapid tests, take a look at our website for our product range.
As all of us absorb some of the more troubling aspects of the recent government announcements, we might not be able to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Just like at the end of March, the government is making decisions very quickly that will have a sizable effect the British public. Even more so, the government is pursuing the same line of response that they pursued back in March, leading some to question how far we have really come in our understanding of how to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the last few weeks, however, there have been a number of breakthroughs in the scientific community. These revelations concern the sensitivity of rapid testing, a topic that has been hotly debated in the months since lockdown began. For many, the fact that rapid tests were unable to detect antibodies and viral material below a certain threshold was a fatal flaw, further confirming the predominant use of PCR testing which can detect below this threshold.
The problem lies in the fact that PCR tests – like those available on the NHS – take at least 48 hours to return a result. Given that the government advises those with symptoms to stay at home, this might mean that the patient misses two days of work at the least, which, as infections rise again, could threaten the financial stability of those already hit hard by the pandemic. Similarly, those interested in travelling might have to postpone or even cancel their plans if they experience symptoms at an inopportune time. Clearly, there is an incentive here for Britons to simply take their chances, to keep functioning in ignorance by not applying for a test or to apply for a test but make no adjustments to their behaviour while they wait for the results. In both cases, the delay inherent in PCR testing poses a problem for mitigating infection rates.
But, since rapid tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests, we have no other option but to continue with this line of response, right?
Well, Harvard immunologist Dr. Michael Mina has a strange yet simple answer (which he lays out clearly and concisely in a recent New York Times article): what if rapid tests are just insensitive enough to miss non-contagious or non-immune individuals who nevertheless have some tiny amount of viral material or antibodies? Put another way, what if a positive result from a rapid test gives us all the information that actually we care about: are we infectious/immune or not?
Dr. Mina would answer in the affirmative. He does not dispute that rapid tests are less sensitive but still holds that they are more useful that PCR tests, since we are not interested in detecting any and all amounts of viral material or antibodies but only those amounts which make a patient contagious or presently immune. So, why are we being so sensitive? Rapid testing offers the British public the power to make informed decisions at the pace of their lives. PCR testing interrupts their lives to give them information that they don’t need.
If you are interested in purchasing a rapid test, take a look at our online shop and our eBay page.
The next phase of the government’s response to the pandemic begins on Friday as face coverings become mandatory in various public spaces. It is unclear why exactly the government has chosen to do this. Although the pandemic rages on, we are still seeing sustained decreases in infection rates. A number of explanations have been given, most of which revolve around increasing the confidence of shoppers. Understandably, the government is desperate to give the British economy a jump-start and hope that these measures will encourage demand.
However, if this is the case, it doesn’t seem to explain why the government is punishing non-compliance, rather than simply advising compliance. It is worth re-emphasising then that COVID-19 remains a real danger to public health, as the recent outbreak in Leicester demonstrated. So, if they are effective, wearing a mask would definitely be in the public’s best interest.
One of the other problems with this new legislation is that it promises to create a whole bunch of complications for small businesses. Our plan with this blog is to untangle some of these, to give small businesses the confidence to weather this phase of the crisis.
What Are You Legally Required to Do?
From July 24, face coverings will be mandatory in shops, supermarkets and on public transport. It is worth emphasising that pubs, cafés and restaurants are not subject to these rules, according to a government spokesperson contacted by the BBC.
Now, the brunt of the legislation falls on the public, rather than transport operators or business owners. For example, the system of fines attached to these measures only apply to the public. The fine for not wearing a face covering in these public spaces is £100, although this halves to £50 if the perpetrator pays within 14 days. This does not mean that there can be no repercussion for business owners, however – the government has stated that they ‘will be expected to encourage compliance with the law’. It is only that there are no prescribed punishments in the legislation for non-public actors.
The government does explain how business owners can legally respond to those breaking these new laws. Most notably, businesses can ‘refuse entry’. Since the legislation gives the police the power to fine members of the public, businesses therefore have recourse to requesting their aid in dealing with non-compliant customers.
Many readers will have already observed that these new measures pose a number of challenges for small businesses. The pandemic has already been disastrous for many small businesses, especially those which require proximity to customers. For such businesses, this legislation reads as yet another major threat to their livelihoods.
For many small businesses, relationships of trust are crucial. Whether it is the trust and loyalty of frequent patrons or the necessity of making that initial impression as a trust-worthy establishment, small businesses rely heavily on the interactions with customers that might be hamstrung by this legislation. For example, consider the situation of a trusted customer entering your shop without a mask – do you risk offense and ill-will by asking them to leave? Similarly, how much new business are you willing to turn away in compliance with this legislation?
In discussing the role of transport operators to their customers, the government states that they can ‘direct some to wear a face covering’. There is no requirement for transport operators or business owners to have face coverings on hand, however, and no mention of such a practice in general. However, having a number of masks available at your workplace, staff can give them to customers entering without a mask, preventing a loss of business.
The Perfect Mask
So far, we’ve skipped over one of the most important aspects of this development: are masks even effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19?
There has been considerable debate within the scientific community on this topic. Yet, as it stands, there is no debate around whether masks are effective, only how effective they might be.
The picture that virologists paint about masks looks something like this. COVID-19 is spread predominantly by droplets originating in the mouth, nose and throat, partly because of the distance these droplets can cover as a result of the air propelled when someone exhales or speaks. Similarly, the virus’ main entry-point into the body is the mouth, hence all the guidance about refraining from touching your face. Masks are designed as a barrier to these infectious droplets, regardless of whether they are coming from the wearer themselves or another person in close proximity to them. Therefore, masks prevent both the infected from spreading the virus and the non-infected from catching it.
If you’d like a more comprehensive explanation, take a look at this video:
As might be clear to you, the effectiveness of the mask depends upon the quality of the mask. Luckily, the most effective masks are fairly simple to make and as such, relatively inexpensive, made from pieces of cotton attached to string or elastic straps. Many have become interested in so-called “valved” masks which appear to be far more high-tech and therefore more secure than the regular cotton mask.
However, there have been rising concerns about these masks, which are nevertheless still far less popular than their cheaper cotton counterparts. Of course, these concerns are more pressing in light of this new legislation, which will spur a drastic increase in the wearing of masks.
Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s decision to wear a one of these masks became a flashpoint for the debate over their effectiveness. A number of virologists penned concerned letters and articles, including Dr Bharat Pankhania of the University of Exeter Medical School, who highlighted the filtering valves on the mask, supposedly a further protection, as having the potential to exaggerate the possibility of spreading COVID-19 by creating a ‘high-velocity flow of air from the mouth … which could create a plume of infection.’ In India, where the masks are more common, the government has had to issue an official statement against their use.
So, the regular cotton mask remains the most effective which is hand since they are so much more affordable than the alternative. If you’re still in need of a mask for yourself or a number of masks for your workplace, head on over to our online shop or our eBay page to get your hands on some.
During the pandemic, the news media has rightly focussed almost exclusively on the most vulnerable and those who have suffered directly, whether it is the survivors or those who have been unable to say goodbye to their loved ones. For the rest of us, the last few months have been simply surreal. It has been hard to articulate exactly what it is that we have all lived through – indeed, what we are still living through. This strangeness and uncertainty of the situation was heightened for young people, however, despite a lack of coverage.
Not for a number of generations has there been such a radical interruption of everyday life. Those of us who are in still in some form of education have experienced extensive changes to grading systems, teaching timetables and accommodation. Undergraduates in their final year have been forced to finish degrees at home that they have been working towards sometimes for four years. Cut off from the usual access to all of the university’s resources and required to respond to often daily changes in assessment structures, many undergraduates became justifiably despondent, feeling as if all of their previous hard work had been suddenly and radically undermined. Similarly, GCSE and A-Level students have been left at the mercy of bureaucracies as their final grades are to be decided for them without their taking the relevant exams. The same despondency reigns, students are robbed of the opportunity to outperform predictions or turn their current attainment around – in short, they are frustratingly stripped of their agency.
As many parents of will tell you, this despondency has only exaggerated the effects of being separated from friends and prohibited from enjoying the sorts of lifestyles that young Britons lead today. Expressions of this malaise dominated social media during the lockdown. One popular notion was that of ‘lockdown time’ – it was such a prevalent topic of discussion that the BBC devoted a lengthy article to the phenomenon. It refers to the strange experience of not knowing what day of the week it is, of seemingly losing whole days, or of time radically speeding up.
So, what happens when lockdown begins to be eased? Well, young people are the most eager to get out. This continues to be a problem. The months spent in lockdown, the freedom from work, and an interest in distracting themselves from the uncertainty that has been introduced into their lives – all of these factors make young people far more likely to break the guidelines. Considering that the virus poses far less of a risk to their health, it is understandable that young Britons are a little more reckless with the guidance. However, it is important to remember their role as potential carriers of the disease.
Balancing the need for young people to enjoy the summer with the need to contain the virus is paramount. Perhaps, rapid testing might provide a solution. Reliable rapid tests would enable young people to test frequently, ensuring that they are not infected before interacting with others.
As the pandemic has progressed, there has been growing public interest in the potentials of testing. With reliable means of detecting whether someone has or has had the virus, we might better adjust not only public policy but our own lives, which have been so abruptly interrupted. There has been endless discussion about the possibilities of immunity for those who have contracted the virus and survived. There have also been doubts about the reliability of rapid testing, which remains the most convenient form of testing for the general public – and for business owners.
Indeed, for many small businesses, the answers to these questions will be pivotal. However, answering these questions requires at least a minimal knowledge of viral testing and there has been a pitiful lack of accessible information. As part of our campaign to empower small businesses during the pandemic, we thought it might be useful to produce this short and simple introduction to viral testing.
Let’s start with the absolute basics. A virus is parasitic, meaning it cannot survive without a host. Its host is a cell. A virus is chiefly composed of two elements: a nucleic acid molecule and a protein shell. ‘Nucleic acid’ might sound familiar to you, a distant memory from a school classroom where you were given a lecture on DNA – the ‘secret ingredient of life’. It is this element of a virus that is responsible for the replication which can make them so dangerous.
In order for a virus to replicate, though, it must attach itself to a cell – its host. This is where the protein shell comes in. Think about all of those images of the COVID-19 virus that you will have seen on the news or in articles or on the government’s public safety posters that are now dotted all over the place. The virus has a bunch of ‘spikes’ sticking out of it, right? Well, these are part of the protein shell and they’re the virus’ way of gaining access to a cell.
They are also what attracts the attention of the body’s immune system. When the body produces antibodies against a virus, it is these protein ‘spikes’ which they are designed to hunt out. This brings us to the first of the two major forms of COVID-19 tests: the antibody test. In an antibody test – like our rapid antibody test -, the filter paper onto which the blood-sample is placed already contains proteins extracted from the COVID-19 virus. If you have the relevant antibodies in your blood, they will react with the proteins on the paper, producing the marks that can be seen on this test from one of our customers:
Antibody tests have come under fire in the past few months for a number of reasons. (We have a whole blog on the topic, if you’re interested.) But the main concerns revolved around the sensitivity of the tests. Firstly, it takes a while for detectable levels of antibodies to be produced, meaning that antibody tests do not give us a totally comprehensive picture of who currently has the virus. Similarly, in the other direction, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the levels of antibodies cease to be detectable and whether this has any bearing on immunity, for example. Take a look at this diagram:
However, the picture used above is of a test taken by one of our customers, whose husband had symptoms over 60 days ago, which means that antibody testing might be reliable far beyond the limit previously assumed.
So, what is different about an antigen test? Instead of testing for antibodies which fight the virus, antigen tests are able to detect the genetic material of the virus, that nucleic acid we discussed earlier. Because this genetic material is present as soon as someone is infected, antigen tests offer a more comprehensive picture of who currently has the virus than do antibody tests. However, antigen tests cannot give us information on who has had the virus in the past, which is the added benefit of antibody tests. Such a hard limit to the testing window is reflected in the NHS’ guidance on getting one of their antigen tests:
We hope that this information clears up a few misconceptions about testing and gives you the confidence to lead your business through the current challenges. For more information, and to view our range of health and safety products, check out our website.