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Boris Johnson’s Failed COVID-19 Launch

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has embraced mission-oriented governance in letter but not in spirit. Far from empowering the state to serve the public interest, his plan for a COVID-19 testing "moonshot" threatens to weaken further the capacity of the public-health sector.

LONDON – An old Zen Buddhist saying cautions, “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” By focusing too much on the means, one can lose sight of the ends. A case in point is UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ambitious £100 billion ($130 billion) “Operation Moonshot” to boost the country’s COVID-19 testing capacity from 350,000 per day to ten million per day by next spring. Owing to its design, Johnson’s plan is at best a distraction from his government’s ongoing failure to implement an effective test-and-trace system; at worst, it represents a conscious effort to undermine the public sector.

To be sure, a moonshot is long overdue. Governments absolutely must adopt a mission-oriented approach to address major collective challenges like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. A well-designed universal testing plan with a robust test-and-trace component is the key to opening the economy safely, just as widespread mobilization of industrial production will be crucial for the economic recovery.

But the Johnson government’s plan raises concerns. First, by focusing so much on the sheer volume of tests, it ignores the central purposes of testing: to diagnose individuals, trace their contacts, and determine infection rates within the community. For assessing the spread of a virus within a given area, access to an unbiased, reasonably sized sample is far more important than the absolute number of tests performed.