Along with a couple of million others, I was volunteering for the research project run out of Kings College, London. Every day I would use their app to report how I was feeling and whether I had required treatment. “Big Data” analysis was allowing them to spot “signals” for symptoms and patterns that might match with a later diagnosis of Covid, or with its more serious symptoms. It was this approach, for example, which verified anosmia (loss of taste and smell) as a common and significant symptom of this particular virus. I dutifully recorded my slightly sore throats, hoarse voice and headaches (it is pollen season) over weeks, but thankfully, never needed to report a fever or persistent cough.
One day, the app and an email asked me to make an appointment for a test at one of the government's drive-through centres. They explained that the project had been granted a number of tests to validate the model they had built. They could predict who they thought was probably infected, or not, but only testing would confirm or deny their analysis.
The nearest centres were full, but I was invited to drive 30 miles to have a test.
The first challenge was finding where to go. The invitation named a particular location, but gave no address. The place was not on any of the usual maps and the council's web site mentioned it but simply said follow the temporary Christmas shopper signs from the main road. It was not listed in my sat nav. It took some deduction and even a look at satellite imagery to figure out where it had to be and find a post code for the car.
I was surprised how nervous I was about going. For weeks, I had driven rarely, on almost empty roads, six miles to the supermarket and back. It felt like I was planning a major adventure and I was not sure what the experience would be when I got there.
The first surprise was finding the trunk road as busy as ever. Local roads were still empty but the high speed, longer-distance routes looked and felt like normal. I wondered where all these people had come from and where they were going. Many of the vehicles were commercial, but there were lots of cars too. Inessential journeys were forbidden, but what was essential for all these people to be out?
The sat nav took me to the location, but not to a sensible entrance. I had to work out how to get onto the road which would let me in. There were no signposts until the entrance itself, which was off a minor roundabout into a gateway in a tall, thick hedge.
I have watched too many dystopian films that have some sort of government collection or testing centre. It’s a surprisingly common theme for when things have gone disastrously wrong and we are all struggling to survive, whether from invading aliens, zombie apocalypse, a pandemic or totalitarian takeover. The point where we all have to go to a temporary facility set up in the desert or in an urban wilderness is a powerful symbol of us having lost control of our own lives, of a minimal and probably hopeless provision by a dying government and the last dregs of our civilisation. Typically, these scenes involve brutality: with some people being shut out to certain death or abused and manhandled when they are at rock bottom. Those with guns and power exercise strength and we all suffer.
As I drove in, it was deja vu. Lines of cones and lots of people, some wearing surgical masks, pointing and telling us where to go and long, long lines of cars, punctuated by tents and kiosks. Large signs told us, very firmly, to stay in our cars and to keep windows closed tightly. At key points, the staff would hold up laminated signs with their mobile phone number and we were expected to call them to receive instructions.
After a couple of minutes, though, it was obvious where fiction had got this wrong. There was no visible military or pseudo-military presence at all. We were willing. People expected us to co-operate, and we did. The people staffing the centre looked like anyone else apart from the high-vis and protective equipment. People giving instructions were friendly and helpful. It was a little disorganised and ad hoc. It was day time and sunny. The test itself was invasive and unpleasant, and tricky to administer to myself in my car, with no place to put things easily or safely. It was soon over and I was back on the suburban road and on my way home, having never left my seat. I had tangled with the vast power of the state and drove home unconcerned.
It turned out to be a complete waste of time. Nothing happened at all for two weeks, when I was told that the test result was unclear: the test had failed. There were reliable reports that tens of thousands of tests from centres like this had been sent to America, as there was no capacity to process them here, and all those results had been unreliable and rejected.
Fiction largely missed that although the state has great power, especially in a crisis, it is also deeply limited and utterly dependent on the people in charge. Right now in Britain, we are at the end of more than a decade of politics where public and community services have been deliberately destroyed, while pretending they were being improved. More recently, politics has been about factions and particular interest groups winning power at any cost, and through florid, lying promises which bear no relation to reality, for particular projects. The most dystopian part of England today is that we do not have a government that is capable of governing, nor does it wish to do so except in so far as it can deliver for the tiny number of people who fund and drive it. We may not have naked authoritarianism, but perhaps the current shambles is worse.