Tracking Covid19 in Britain With 5000 Tests a Day

Testing and tracing are supposed to identify infection Covid19 hot spots and provide the data required to construct firewalls between those infected and people for whom the disease causes serious complications. Currently the program is failing on both counts, in part due to the difficulty matching testing capacity with the public's demand for tests. Covid19 hotspots quickly become test booking hotspots while at the same time testing stations in the rest of the country remain unused and empty. The following is an outline of a program, requiring as few as 5000 tests a day, which would be more easily managed, throw light on how Covid19 is transmitted and ultimately help us contain the virus.

Boys will be Boys

And girls will be girls. If we better understood how Covid19 spreads within groups of teenagers we would be halfway to defeating the virus. (See Covid19 Test, Test, Test.) While teenagers social distance in classrooms and sit one metre apart while travelling to school, at the bus stop in the morning they fight, jostle, hug and are cheek to cheek without masks taking selfies. Transmission of the virus within this demographic is predominately asymptomatic and only reveals itself when passed onto a teacher, a parent or, worse, a grandparent. Here is the hidden threat responsible for the panic which drives up demand for testing each time a hotspot is identified.

Fortunately, thanks in part to OFSTED, schoolchildren lead very uniform and predictable lives; only later in life will they become ‘random.’ The daily routine of a teenager in Bradford is, for the most part, identical to that of a teenager in Brighton. This, and the fact there are only two degrees of separation between a school child and everyone else in their local community, means a fifteen year old teenager is much like a caged canaries when it comes to detecting the presence of Covid19.

A New Approach To Test and Trace

There are 4,800 state secondary schools in the UK spread over 48 counties (Typically 100 schools in each county). The test and trace program would involve a team of testers and tracers, four people (three testers, one tracer) allocated to each county.

On day one twenty randomly selected pupils would be tested in five schools across each county. At the end of the day samples would be couriered to testing laboratories at a local university with a view to having results emailed back early the next day.

On day two a second batch schools tested but this time those geographically close to any school in which a pupil tested positive. If more than one pupil in a school tested positive this school would also be on the list for day two. Meanwhile the tracers would be interviewing infected pupils, specifically looking at their use of social media.

Surprisingly little social media data is required to determine how fast Covid19 is likely to spread within a school and the community it serves - the number of people on a teenager's friends list would suffice. An extrovert teenager would have over 32 contacts and should they test positive the school can expect trouble. If an introverted pupil with under 32 contacts tested positive, then the school already has a problem.

Once the testing had converged on a hotspot the program would reset as if starting again at day one, so ensuring data was eventually collected from all secondary schools in every county in the UK. This iterative process would provide the data required to construct a basic transmission model and identify where the virus is residing and how it is likely to spread.

Program Structure

This program should be ringfenced from the existing government test and trace initiative to avoid political influence and capacity constraints. All data collected would be made available to the universities carrying out testing and fed into departments researching network theory and mathematics. (The proposed program would employ numerical, rather than statistical, analysis). The ultimate aim would be to create a multi-discipline environment similar to the one which existed at Bletchley park during the Second World War.

Fighting Outside of the Box

One of the main aims of the proposed program is to identify the box.

Due to the unique nature of Covid19; in particular its ability to spread asymptomatically, the war against Covid19 consists of a series of skirmishes with an unseen enemy. During this type of warfare armies rely heavily on information gathered by reconnaissance battalions. Unfortunately, the current test and trace program spends too much time involved in hand to hand combat to carry out any meaningful reconnaissance - something that usually only occurs when a battle is all but lost. As even China was unable to suppress Covid19 by brute force alone, Britain and the rest of Europe need to get smart and make intelligent use of the finite resources at their disposal.