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Testing my patience

Any GP who has ever faced the opening gambit of: ‘I just need some antibiotics’, and that’s all of us, even if you just started yesterday, knows that there’s a big difference between needs and wants.

I point this out because, according to the Government, the new, validated and soon-to-be-introduced coronavirus antibody test ‘Will be free for people who need them…NHS and care workers will be prioritised for the tests.’

So, apparently, I ‘need’ this test. Urgently. And it’s likely to be the next gripping chapter in the Covid-19 story, following hot on the heels of PPE, care homes and the Cummings and Goings of social distancing policy.

Yet, as the Government’s own web page on coronavirus antibody tests points out, ‘We do not know …how long an antibody response lasts, whether the antibodies produced are effective in neutralising the virus or whether having antibodies means a person cannot transmit the virus to others’ . To paraphrase, a positive antibody test tells you that you’ve had the virus, and sod all else. So, for example, professionally I will have to continue wearing PPE that I don’t have and publically I will have to continue my social distancing obligations that may or may not exist. Which is helpful, obviously.

So, apparently, I ‘need’ this test

It almost makes you wonder if the Government knows what it’s doing: it’s drummed into us from medical school that you shouldn’t perform any test that will not influence management. In fact, the only consequences of testing I can envisage are bad ones. If positive, might my certificate of previous infection and hypothesised immunity thrust me into the frontline of a catastrophic second wave? If negative, will I be back to sweaty, sleepless nights, knowing I’m waiting either for infection or vaccination – and might that result screw holiday or sickness insurance?

But be still my autonomic overdrive. The website soothingly explains, ‘There’s clear value in knowing whether NHS and care workers…have had the virus and in collecting data on the test results.’

Ah, I get it. If there’s any ‘need’ here, it’s an epidemiological rather than individual one, even if it’s not really being spun that way, and even if it seems odd, epidemiologically, to sample an atypically exposed sector of the community. So when I’m asked to sign the consent form for my blood sample – and I assume there will be one – I’ll be thinking, I’m not sure I need this. Or rather, I don’t want it.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. Read more of Copperfield’s blogs at