Lateral flow tests do NOT cost Gov £2bn a month and should be kept

Lateral flow tests do NOT cost Gov £2bn a month and should be kept because most of testing regime cash was spent on PCRs, SAGE scientists say

  • Providing free tests is costing the UK about £2billion per month Gov has said
  • This cost was cited as reason why most free tests are being scrapped from April 1
  • However, SAGE scientists told MPs the cost is mainly drive by pricey PCR tests
  • PCR tests cost £30 and £100 price to process, costing about £20millon per day
  • In comparison quick and easy later flow tests cost between £2 to £3 pounds
  • Comments come as Labour accused Javid of pulling a fast one over Covid funds 

No10’s scientific advisors have cast doubt over the wisdom of scrapping free Covid lateral flow tests, arguing they take up a tiny fraction of the heavily-publicised £2billion per month figure. 

The comments, made to MPs in a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, came as Labour accused Health Secretary Sajid Javid of ‘pulling a fast one’ on patients over Covid funding. 

Free Covid testing is reportedly costing the country £2bn per month, and the price tag was cited by Boris Johnson as a factor in moving to people having to buy their own if they wanted them.

From April 1, most Brits will have to buy lateral flow tests from high street pharmacies for as much a £3 per test, three times what people in France will pay.

The tests, which can cost pennies to produce, were a crucial component of how the UK battled through the Omicron wave, with experts and minsters urging people to take them before going out to meet other people.

Today two SAGE scientists told MPs that the heavily quoted £2bn per month cost for test is actually driven by the more expensive PCR tests, which require lab analysis.

Professor John Edmunds, an infectious disease modelling expert from The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and member of SAGE, said cheap lateral flow tests only form a faction of the £2billion per month price tag for providing free testing and should be kept for the nation

Fellow SAGE member, Professor Matt Keeling of University of Warwick and part of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said lateral flow tests providing a critical way to prevent the infectious meeting the vulnerable and passing Covid on to them

Professor Devi Sridhar who has advised the Scottish Government during the pandemic said she had doubts over the £2bn pound per month figure saying she was unsure why the UK was paying so much for its tests 

Free lateral flow tests for all Britons are set to be scrapped in just a few weeks and will only be restricted to a few groups of key workers and vulnerable people

Professor John Edmunds, an infectious disease modelling expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and member of SAGE’s New and Emerging Respiratory Viruses Technical Advisory Group (NERVTAG), broke down the costs.   

‘Back at the beginning of January with the Omicron wave, we were testing over 600,000 people a day with PCR tests, that’s an enormous number of people,’ he said.

Health Secretary accused of ‘pulling a fast one’ on patients over Covid funding

Patients will ‘pay the price’ for the Health Secretary’s ‘failed negotiations’ with the Treasury to cover ongoing Covid costs, Labour has warned.  

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told MPs it appeared as if the Health Secretary was ‘pulling a fast one’ with patients, amid concerns that services could be cut to cover the Covid budget.

But Mr Javid hit back, and said the ‘living with Covid’ plan is ‘properly funded’ and the costs will be picked up by the Department of Health and Social Care.

No10’s plan includes scaling back free universal testing from April 1 and instead be focused on the most vulnerable people.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Streeting said: ‘The Secretary of State asked the Chancellor for £5 billion to cover essential ongoing Covid costs and he came away with nothing.

‘So where will the cuts now fall in the NHS budget?’

Mr Javid replied: ‘We must all learn to live with Covid.

‘The Government has been very clear about that, we set out a very detailed plan, and as infections fall, cases fall and hospitalisation rates are falling with Covid, that means we can now have this type of plan.

‘It is a properly funded plan that focuses on vaccines, treatments, targeted testing, and builds in resilience should there be future variants of concern.

‘It is right that this plan is funded by the Department, because it’s our number one health priority.’

But Mr Streeting countered: ‘One minute the Secretary of State is asking for £5 billion from the Treasury and the next minute he’s found the money within the department.

‘Either he was trying to pull a fast one on the Treasury because he had the money he needed, or actually he hasn’t got the money he wanted and therefore the cuts are going to fall within existing budgets.’  

Mr Streeting highlighted a newspaper report which suggested Mr Javid had warned investment in social care could be delayed, there could be fewer elective surgeries and also cuts to the hospital building programme.

The Labour frontbencher added: ‘So having, I think, not tried to pull a fast one on the Chancellor, is it now the case he’s pulling a fast one with patients? And isn’t it really the case it’s the patients who are going to pay the price for his failed negotiations?’

Mr Javid replied: ‘He shouldn’t believe everything he reads in the press, you’d think he’d know that by now.

‘When it comes to funding of our living with Covid plan, it’s right that it is the number one priority and continues to be the number one priority of my department to keep this virus at bay and that it is funded by the department.’

Mr Javid went on to criticise Labour for voting against legislation which provided extra money to the NHS.

From April 1 only limited groups of Britons will be able to get a free LFT or PCR test.  

These include at-risk groups, such as the over-80s and social care staff, who  will able to take a test for free if they have symptoms.

Further details about these at-risk groups, and what kind of conditions might be included has not been revealed as yet.

No10 has said with the less severe Omicron being dominant and high levels of immunity across the country, ‘the value for taxpayers’ money is now less clear’.

Britons can currently buy the tests for £12.99 at some retailers.

‘That comes out at about £20million a day being spent on just PCR tests, that’s where you can get quite rapidly up to the billions of pounds being spent.

‘That’s not including those that would go on to be sequenced, which costs about between £60 and £100. About 10 per cent were being sequenced, so the costs quickly rack up.’

He added that in comparison lateral flows, which do not require sequencing and give a result in as little as 15-to-30 minutes, are far cheaper and thus would a fraction of the total bill.  

‘With lateral flows, at £2 to £3 a test it’s much much cheaper,’ he said. 

The Government has never publicly disclosed how much it paid for the rapid tests but a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Scottish Government last summer revealed it was around £4 per test, excluding VAT.

Lateral flows have become more abundant in the past year so the price may have come down since then. 

Fellow SAGE member, Professor Matt Keeling of University of Warwick and part of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group  on Modelling (Spi-M), said he wanted to see free lateral flow testing continue.

He said the decision to scrap free tests entirely will affect poor people. 

Agreeing with Professor Edmund’s breakdown of the cost of testing, Professor Keeling added: ‘It’s PCR testing that is really expensive, that’s the thing that drives the cost up, whereas the lateral flows are relatively cheap.

‘We are in a economic squeeze at the moment and that’s putting a lot of pressure on people.’

Professor Keeling said LFTs were critical in ensuring infectious people did not pass on Covid to potentially vulnerable individuals, and the UK could manage without the more expensive PCR test in most scenarios. 

‘The whole problem is infected people meeting susceptibles, any other sort of mixing isn’t a problem, and so if you can find out when people are infected, and the only way to that is testing, then you can mitigate some of the worst effects,’ he said.

‘You could get away with doing lateral flow tests for an awful lot of these situations and just do PCRS if you start seeing a lot of cases in a region.’

Professor Devi Sridhar, an expert in public health at the University of Edinburgh who has advised the Scottish Government during the pandemic, said people who were struggling to pay for food and heating would not have the luxury of choosing to buy an LFT test kit.    

‘The costs of the tests are going to be too high, whether they are £6 or £2 we know now that the cost of living has gone up in the UK, people are struggling to pay heating and food bills,’ she said. 

Professor Sridhar said that she had doubts over the £2billion per month figure for testing saying other countries were not paying as much, though she did not cite any examples.  

‘When I look at other countries that’s not how much they are paying for the tests,’ she said.

‘They shouldn’t be costing that much, otherwise I think we are having our own oligarchy happening here as well in terms of who’s getting rich off this system.’

The comments came as Labour said patients will ‘pay the price’ for Mr Javid’s ‘failed negotiations’ with the Treasury to cover Covid recovery costs.  

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told MPs it appeared as if the Health Secretary was ‘pulling a fast one’ with patients, amid concerns that services could be cut to cover the Covid budget.

But Mr Javid hit back, and said the ‘living with Covid’ plan is ‘properly funded’ and the costs will be picked up by the Department of Health and Social Care.

No10’s plan includes scaling back free universal testing from April 1 and instead targeting the most vulnerable people.

Mr Javid had reportedly tried to get £5bn extra to cover free routine testing for NHS staff. 

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Streeting said: ‘The Secretary of State asked the Chancellor for £5bn to cover essential ongoing Covid costs and he came away with nothing.

‘So where will the cuts now fall in the NHS budget?’ Mr Javid replied: ‘We must all learn to live with Covid.

‘The Government has been very clear about that, we set out a very detailed plan, and as infections fall, cases fall and hospitalisation rates are falling with Covid, that means we can now have this type of plan.

In France, people can pick up tests at a third of the UK price (around £3), for as little as £1, while in Germany they can cost just £1.80 and Spain’s Government has capped them at roughly £2.45. However, the tests – which experts say can cost just pennies to make – are not as cheap everywhere, with Americans paying $10 (£7.35)

PCR AND LATERAL FLOW TESTS: THE KEY DIFFERENCES

A PCR test can cost upwards of £180 per person, with the swab needing to be processed in a lab. 

The UK, on the other hand, favours faster tests which are not lab based and give a result within 15 minutes.

These rapid coronavirus tests, known as lateral flow tests, are ones that can be done on the spot using portable equipment.

They are faster and cheaper than lab-based PCR tests, which the government uses to diagnose people, but are less accurate. 

‘It is a properly funded plan that focuses on vaccines, treatments, targeted testing, and builds in resilience should there be future variants of concern.

‘It is right that this plan is funded by the Department, because it’s our number one health priority.’

But Mr Streeting added: ‘One minute the Secretary of State is asking for £5bn  from the Treasury and the next minute he’s found the money within the department.

‘Either he was trying to pull a fast one on the Treasury because he had the money he needed, or actually he hasn’t got the money he wanted and therefore the cuts are going to fall within existing budgets.’

Mr Streeting highlighted a newspaper report which suggested Mr Javid had warned investment in social care could be delayed, there could be fewer elective surgeries and also cuts to the hospital building programme.

The Labour frontbencher added: ‘So having, I think, not tried to pull a fast one on the Chancellor, is it now the case he’s pulling a fast one with patients? And isn’t it really the case it’s the patients who are going to pay the price for his failed negotiations?’

Mr Javid replied: ‘He shouldn’t believe everything he reads in the press, you’d think he’d know that by now.

‘When it comes to funding of our living with Covid plan, it’s right that it is the number one priority and continues to be the number one priority of my department to keep this virus at bay and that it is funded by the department.’

Mr Javid went on to criticise Labour for voting against legislation which provided extra money to the NHS.

From April 1 only limited groups of Britons will be able to get a free LFT or PCR test.  

These include at-risk groups, such as the over-80s and social care staff, who  will able to take a test for free if they have symptoms.

Further details about these at-risk groups, and what kind of conditions might be included has not been revealed as yet.

No10 has said with the less severe Omicron being dominant and high levels of immunity across the country, ‘the value for taxpayers’ money is now less clear’.

Britons can currently buy the tests for £12.99 at some retailers.  

PCR tests are more accurate than LFTs and can provide critical genetic information on the variant of the Covid virus the infected person has if sequenced in a lab.

However, LFTs are much cheaper and provide a result in just 15 minutes while a PCR can take days to be processed. 

The Department of Health was contacted for comment. 

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