Current affairs

Covid testing – the final dispatch

01 Mar 2022 | Written by By Paul Phillips

On February 21st Boris Johnson announced the end of Covid-19 legal restrictions across England. No more self isolation if you have a positive test – and no more free testing from April 1st. Paul Phillips reports from the frontlines of a Covid testing site. 

For those of us working on a Covid 19 Mobile Testing Unit (MTU), the Prime Minister’s much-leaked announcement was no surprise. A lot of us wondered why it hadn’t happened earlier. 

We had got used to dealing with hundreds of ‘customers’ wanting a PCR test each day. There would be a queue of cars before we had even opened a testing site at 9am. It continued like that until we closed at 3pm – although the sheer numbers meant it was frequently a bit later than that. 

But for past month or so we have stopped counting the number of customers in the hundreds; it’s been down to the tens, and not many of those, either. 

It wasn’t just the vaccination and booster campaign that caused the collapse in numbers. The biggest impact was the announcement on January 11th that people who had a positive lateral flow test, but had no Covid symptoms, didn’t need to take a PCR test. 

The recent announcement that even those who test positive won’t have to isolate is going to reduce our dwindling test numbers even further. After all, if you don’t need to isolate, why take a test in the first place?

It’s left the members of the testing teams with plenty of time to talk about what they might do when their job almost inevitably goes from April 1st

We’re talking a lot of people here. The company that has the contract for Covid testing that I work for has employed more than 9,500 people in the past two years. 

Many of those people signed up because their ‘real’ jobs had disappeared. Those in the travel, hospitality and retails sectors were among the worst hit by the lockdowns. Their pre-Covid jobs just aren’t there anymore. 

So, now the end is near, I’d like to share some reflections on my time as a mobile testing operative.

It started in June last year. My university work had ended and much of the journalism consultancy and training projects I ran had fallen victim to the lockdowns. I thought rather than sitting at home doing very little (other than enduring England’s cricketing woes) I would do something to ‘make a contribution.’ 

I knew someone who was already working with a testing team and literally within a day or so I had applied and been accepted. 

We worked four days on, four days off at various locations and it wasn’t the most arduous task I have even taken on. 

I have been writing and running pub quizzes for several years and found myself in demand as the testing team yearned for something to do in the long gaps between dealing with customers wanting a PCR test. Nice work, if you can get it.

Then the Delta variant arrived and the number of customers for tests soared. I can recall the day we carried out a ‘record’ 60 tests in a day. Within weeks we were hitting 250 and that number was only going one way.

Our role was to check that customers had a booking when they arrived by asking to see a QR code, talking them through the PCR test – don’t touch your tongue, teeth or cheeks with the swab – and then scanning the barcode on the tests before they were sent off to the testing laboratory.

It involved saying the same thing over and over again and I knew it was getting to me when I grabbed my partner’s hand in bed in the middle of the night and asked to see her QR code. She was delighted. 

On top of dealing with the increasing numbers we also had to cope with the ever-changing health and safety rules dreamed up by the company we worked for. There were reams of paperwork to go through and sign and most of it was utterly pointless. I’m convinced it was really about preventing the company ever being sued by an employee more than anything else. 

Among the many ‘courses’ we had to take was one on applying sun cream. I am not making this up. We quickly realised that the best way to stay safe with sun cream, or other such hazardous substances, was not to lick it or put it in your eye. 

Now, here’s a thing. How could a company so obsessed with health and safety deploy our team on the day of Storm Eunice? It was predicted well in advance, yet they we were, on an exposed testing site, battered by some of the worst winds in decades with debris flying about. 

Our team manager had been issued with a wind speed indicator so he could report to HQ that the wind was too strong for us to safety work in. His machine was about affective as a child’s toy windmill so the readings wildly understated the real wind speed. Health and safety, indeed.

Putting to one side the rising numbers of tests we had to facilitate, the health and safety regulations and the sometimes unkind weather, the biggest challenge was dealing with some of the customers. 

There was the well-to-do woman who unpacked her test kit and drank the fluid that the swab goes in thinking it was mouthwash.

There was the man who, despite being told clearly how to carry out his PCR test, was seen stabbing himself on the outside of his throat with a swab.

There were the five people who got off a bus at a site to be tested. They’d clearly misunderstood the isolation rules.  

The whole test and trace operation can probably justifiably be called a logistical success, even if it has been a very expensive one. 

Health experts say that Covid hasn’t gone away and more outbreaks of new variants are inevitable. 

Who knows if the testing operation will ever be revived? 

But if it is I, for one, will be ready. Have you got your QR code please?


What are your thoughts? You can share your reflections with Paul and fellow members in the comments below. 

Paul Phillips works on a Covid Mobile Testing Team. He has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.

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