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Fintan O’Toole: Why all the dithering on antigen testing in Ireland?

Fear that negative tests will create a false sense of security assumes we’re all a bit dim

You know those woozy, semi-conscious moments when you don’t want to wake up but your brain is nagging: here’s all the things you have to do today?

On Monday mornings, in this hazy space between dream and reality, my mind is muttering: rise up and spit.

I get up, make the coffee, empty the dishwasher, turn on the radio, start shaving. I look at the clock and remind myself how long I must wait after drinking my coffee before I can start.

When 30 minutes have passed after the last sip, I open the bedside drawer. There’s a small black plastic bag. Inside it are the antigen tests I collect every month from a booth on the campus where I’m teaching, in the sane part of the United States.


Why such open aversion to adding this extra weapon to the anti-Covid arsenal, alongside vaccinations and masks and hygiene?

If you had told me two years ago what I would do next, I would not even have begun to understand what you were talking about.

I would have been repelled by this disgusting ritual, this weird calibration of bodily fluids. My wife still can’t bear it. She leaves the room as I begin. She puts in her earphones to be sure she can’t hear my aria of splutter.

Yet I do it now on automatic pilot. I open the app on my phone. I take a picture of the barcode on my test and upload it. In a second or two, it confirms that I have registered my test.

I open the package and take out the plastic tube with the little funnel on top. I start spitting into it.

The first time the nurse instructed me on how to do this, it took me what seemed like five or even 10 minutes to fill the tube up to the wavy black line.

When I was a kid, there were still signs on the buses: do not expectorate. This injunction was wired into my brain.

I could not process the opposite instruction: do expectorate, quite a lot. It was embarrassing and, as is the way, the more mortified I felt, the worse it got. I could see in the nurse’s face that look of veiled impatience – the strained smile, the bare tolerance of another unmanly drooler.

Adept and unembarrassed

But by now I am adept and unembarrassed. I spit like an old timer in a western, chawing his tobacco and shooting his juices unerringly at the spitoon. I get to that wavy line in no time.

When my sputum has breasted the tape, I discard the funnel. I lift the little cap full of blue fluid from the package. I twist it sharply into the tube and watch as its contents flow downwards and turn everything to a pale azure. I shake it with the aplomb of a cocktail waiter mixing a blue daiquiri.

I write my name and date of birth on a little sticker and affix it to the tube, making sure not to cover the barcode. I clean the surfaces with an antiseptic wipe.

Then I pop the whole thing in the plastic bag with the biohazard symbol on the front. I drop the bag in a metal box in a nearby building. Later, I check the result on my phone. So far, it always says “not detected”.

This system seems to work. The university has students from all over the US and indeed all over the world. There has been no Covid outbreak since in-person classes resumed on September 1st.

The testing is compulsory. It’s also completely free. These two things go together – if you have to do something, you shouldn’t have to pay for it.

Irish programme

Why has Ireland not created a programme like this for schools, colleges and workplaces? Why such open aversion to adding this extra weapon to the anti-Covid arsenal, alongside vaccinations and masks and hygiene?

It is now more than seven months since the Government’s own expert group recommended the development of an antigen plan. Meanwhile, regular asymptomatic antigen testing in meat plants has been a great success: it has picked up 79 per cent of positives confirmed by the gold standard PCR tests.

Yet on Sunday, Micheál Martin said: “We are looking to expand testing and tracing, in particular antigen testing. The Minister for Health will be bringing forward proposals.” Tests, when they are eventually widely used, will not be free but will rather be sold at “subsidised prices”.

Why the dithering? Why the message to the public that antigen testing is not a positive plan but a last resort: we’ll do it because we can’t think of anything else?

The anxiety seems rooted in the same logic that led the State’s advisers to reject the use of masks for so long: fear of encouraging a false sense of security.

The assumption is that a negative antigen test makes us feel invulnerable, so we abandon all the other vital precautions. It is, in other words, that most people are a bit dim and do not understand the limitations of these tests.

That’s surely not true. People have proven throughout the pandemic well able to adjust and adapt intelligently to different measures.

But not without a coherent national programme and a clear message from those in charge. Half-hearted, tentative decisions are not worth a spit.