The Government’s messaging on the role of antigen testing for Covid-19 is a study in muddled communications.
Antigen tests are less sensitive than the gold-standard PCR tests but they are faster and easier to carry out. They are also relatively cheap, usually selling for a few euro each. Given those advantages, many held out the hope, early in the pandemic, that antigen testing could be a decisive factor in allowing countries rapidly to break chains of transmission and hasten reopenings. That promise was never fulfilled, however, and scientists have not arrived at a consensus on the role these tests should play in the pandemic response.
In Ireland, those differences were reflected in the work of an expert advisory group tasked by Government with investigating the technology. The group, chaired by the Government's chief scientific adviser Prof Mark Ferguson, recommended widespread use of the tests, including in schools, workplaces and universities. The group was split, however, with two of its six members not supporting the conclusions of the majority. Nonetheless, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the tests would be "another valuable tool" against the virus and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar expressed similar enthusiasm, saying he hoped that, combined with vaccination certification, antigen testing could "open the way" to resuming hospitality, the arts and live events safely.
The technology has been in use in a limited number of settings for a few weeks, but when the supermarket chain Lidl decided last week to put a brand of home-use kits on sale, the divisions within Government quickly reappeared – this time in public. Chief medical officer Tony Holohan urged people not to buy them and said he was "genuinely concerned" about the use of the kits in uncontrolled circumstances. An ill-advised tweet from the supermarket, Lidl, prompted another member of the National Public Health Emergency Team, Philip Nolan, to tweet about "snake oil" and advise that "these antigen tests will not keep you safe". At the same time, Varadkar and others in Government continue to talk up the potential of antigen testing.
The public health experts’ misgivings are understandable. They worry that people will assume antigen testing is more reliable than it is and take a negative result as licence to disregard advice on social mixing and mask-wearing. They also, quite reasonably, see a big difference between HSE-administered antigen testing programmes and home-use of off-the-shelf kits. But it should be possible to express those concerns without making people feel they are being infantilised, and in a way that makes clearer where Government thinking has settled on the issue. After recent days, people would be forgiven for concluding that the State has two co-existing views on antigen testing: it is for and against it.