Marcus Gibson

By Marcus Gibson, Gibson Index and ex-FT tech correspondent

What happens when the UK government ignores its small, world-class companies?

Thousands of people die.

Back in March 2020, at the start of the COVID pandemic, the UK government had a simple choice for its strategic tests programme.

Shall we order £2.8bn-worth of lateral flow tests from China and the USA, which offer as little as 30% accuracy? Or shall we order mass testing with British-made, MHRA- and CE-certified immunity tests which offer guaranteed accuracy of 99.99%?

The NHS and Cabinet Office who made this key procurement decision chose the former, with fatal consequences.

At this point a little science needs to be explained. A lateral flow test (LFT) simply tells you if you have an active virus – nothing else. So, for example, at an airport check-in you could have a negative LFT test, catch COVID-19 in duty free, and board an aircraft to your destination thinking you’re free.

One brilliant company in the UK, Bio-Diagnostics Ltd, based in Worcestershire, has a 40-year track record of researching, perfecting and manufacturing in-house immunity tests, and not just for COVID but for allergies and even the rarest of African diseases on behalf of the World Health Organisation.

When the government finally woke up to the fact the pandemic was spreading at a terrific rate across the UK in March 2020, Bio-Diagnostics offered its COVID-19 immunity test to the Cabinet Office and No.10 Downing St.

The company, predicting the onset of the pandemic, had worked night and day to produce the world’s only test capable of detecting COVID-19-specific antibodies – as all other tests were found to be searching for the wrong antibodies.

Fifteen months later, Bio-Diagnostics has not received a single order from the NHS or Dept of Health for an immunity test.

So, what could have happened if immunity testing had been adopted? First, by March 2020 around 15-20% of the UK population had achieved natural immunity. If they had been mass-tested, those with positive results could have been immediately and safely released back into the workforce, into universities, school and travel.

By the end of 2020 that number was probably close to 35% of the adult workforce. Yet they were needlessly trapped into a second lockdown.

Next, positive immunity tests could have instantly identified those people who did not now need a vaccination – enabling critically rationed stocks of the vaccine to be diverted to people who really needed it, and saving the wastage of perhaps 20% of the UK’s vaccines.

Thirdly, it was realised early on that the vaccines had a 37% failure rate among the over-65s. But who were they? An immunity test, on patients in hospitals and care homes, could have identified those who were free to hug their grandchildren, and those who were in mortal danger if they came out of isolation, assuming the vaccines had given them full protection.

Bio-Diagnostics went on to complete thousands of tests – and became the first organisation in the UK to confirm, unequivocally, some very good news – immunity from COVID-19 would last at least 12 months and probably more. In the past the Dept of Health had oft declared, quite wrongly, that immunity lasted two or three months only.

Overall, the company’s experience was the sort of strategic failure which occurs when governments blithely ignore their exceptional SMEs. But although Bio-Diagnostics is probably the worst single example, it was far from being the only one.

Take the patriotic, family-owned David Nieper, a 60-year textiles manufacturer in Derbyshire which scrupulously makes its products in the UK. In April 2020, near the height of the PPE shortage crisis, it told the government it had pioneered a special, chemical-coated gown that could be washed and used at least 100 times, and fully met EU standards.

Did it receive a single NHS contract? No. Instead it distributed its gowns to local hospitals. Quite why the NHS was ruinously dependent on single-use PPE in 2020, and remains so, beggars belief.

It has, to date, ordered 32 billion items, according to the BBC, including 1.1m gowns, and virtually none of it is reusable, creating a huge waste stream destined only for landfill or incineration.

Astonishingly, at the height of the crisis the UK’s biggest and most expert supplier of PPE, Arco Ltd, won just £14m from the Dept of Health – while new startups with zero experience begun by friends and contacts of ministers, MPs, advisers and civil servants ramped up contracts in the tens of millions, including a pest control firm that won a deal worth £108m.

Somewhere in Whitehall there sits, in a locked cabinet, a list of the 47 cosy companies that got special treatment from the DoH as part of a VIP fast-track lane for procurement, obtaining £1.7 billion worth of COVID contracts.

According to a report by the National Audit Office, the ‘queue jumping’ of companies with links to ministers, officials, members of the House of Lords and some MPs was official policy yet hidden from the public and from companies applying in the ‘ordinary lane’. Many of the resulting products turned out to be of such low quality they had to be discarded.

The government stubbornly refuses to name those so-called VIP companies, or who within government recommended them. But at least we do know the names of the brilliant companies who were, disastrously, ignored by them.

Marcus Gibson, an ex-FT tech correspondent and columnist, believes the UK’s SMEs are utterly essential to any future revival of the economy, especially outside the South East of England. His index of UK SMEs profiles thousands of the best companies.