Misleading language on COVID-19

On 2 April our Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock set out a target of “100,000 [COVID-19] tests per day” by the end of the month. Right from the start this seemed ambitious, and as we approach the end of the month it is widely thought to be unatainable. However Matt Hancock and his colleagues persist, insisting even today that they will “have the ability to carry out 100,000 tests a day” by the end of the month.

But note how the language has changed. Most of us assume that, for Hancock’s target to be achieved, 100,000 people will be tested each day from tomorrow (30 April) onward. We assume that Hancock is using the word ‘tests’ as a verb; an action that is carried out on a person. However, in its more recent incarnation, the word is being used as a noun in that ‘tests’ now refers to the kit that is needed to carry out the test, rather than the actual act of testing.

The government may well be able to supply 100,000 test kits each day, but unless the staff and the facilities exist to administer those tests in a safe and relatively convenient manner, the target is meaningless. According to the government website, the intention is to open 48 drive-through testing stations by the end of the month, and there is a 37-page document explaining how to arrange a test. As if to prove the point, the government is claiming a capacity of 75,000 tests a day, but less than 20,000 people are actually being tested. I even heard someone put this down to a ‘lack of demand’ which is disingenuous to say the least.

We are used to such smoke-and-mirror tricks from the private sector, and they were succesfully deployed to undermine much that was meaningful in the Brexit debate. However right now the government needs us to trust them more than ever. It’s time to ignore the spin-doctors and start talking straight.

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