Covid Scotland: Ending free tests could see a 'Wild West' market with staggering prices – Ivor Campbell

A suggestion was recently floated within Whitehall that free lateral flow tests to detect Covid among the UK population would soon end.

Free Covid testing has been an important part of the fight against the virus (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
Free Covid testing has been an important part of the fight against the virus (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

The Johnson administration has already spent £6 billion, allowing Britons to claim up to seven tests a day without charge, and unnamed sources told journalists that, plainly, this was not a money tree that could continue to shed its harvest indefinitely.

The UK government’s winter Covid plan apparently included a provision to limit free tests to high-risk settings such as care homes, hospitals, schools, and people with symptoms, with the cost of future mass testing borne by individuals and businesses rather than the public purse – a suggestion which drew an immediate rebuke from Nicola Sturgeon.

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Education Secretary Nadim Zahawi later rebutted the idea, insisting that scrapping free tests “is not where we are at”, using the sort of ambiguous language, so favoured by this administration, that has you reaching for the number of a good lawyer.

Perhaps Zahawi hadn’t been told of the plan; perhaps he didn’t want to answer any more questions about it. Who knows, perhaps he was even telling the truth, and there really is nothing to see here.

What was surprising – shocking even – was that, with the notable exception of the Scottish First Minister, the suggestion wasn’t met by louder and more vociferous opposition.

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Anyone who wants to know what happens following the imposition of a mandatory testing programme on a population, with only the free market left to decide on incidental issues like cost and distribution, needs look no farther than the US.

There, a ‘Wild West’ has evolved since the start of the pandemic, as labs and testing facilities have been free to charge whatever consumers can be made to bear for tests that we take for granted, fuelling a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Last month, the US-based Consumer Report website warned: “The next time you get tested for Covid-19, it might cost $130, $385, or no money at all.

“Some labs tack on additional fees such as those for ‘specimen collection’ – the act of inserting a cotton-tipped plastic swab in your nose for a few seconds. Others may even bundle together several tests for almost a thousand dollars.”

With regulations that allow pop-up companies with no healthcare experience to offer rapid testing, limited supplies of tests are snapped-up and sold on for huge profits.

Just as the UK government appears to be considering ending the free supply of lateral flow tests, the Biden administration in the US is belatedly changing tack.

The poorest Americans have, in recent weeks, had tests delivered to their homes for the first time, and new measures introduced by the federal government will ensure that those with health insurance will get the cost of their at-home tests reimbursed.

As attention has switched in the past year from the issue of testing to the rollout of the vaccination programme, the emergence of the Omicron variant has brought it sharply back into focus.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the diagnostics industry appeared to believe there would be a future need for sophisticated, rapid-testing hardware.

Instead, the highest revenues and profits have been made in the mass production of relatively low-tech, at-home, disease-screening kits.

While the UK government deserves credit for being on the front foot with the rollout of vaccines, it has been less successful in helping British companies benefit from this mass-testing market growth.

To date, the biggest winner has been private equity-backed Innova Medical, which won £3.7 billion in UK government contracts, despite its Chinese-manufactured lateral flow tests being recalled by the US Food and Drug Administration which said it had “significant concerns that the performance of the test has not been adequately established, presenting a risk to health”.

A senior diagnostics industry figure recently told me he’d been in conversation with our Prime Minister, who left him with the definite impression that he thought British companies supplied all of the Covid testing kits used in the UK.

Boris Johnson was apparently unaware that, while Innova Medical might have operations and research and development facilities in the UK, its base is in California, not Britain.

A quick Google search would have told him that, while the company has plans to build a new production facility in Wales, its UK chief executive Daniel Elliott fears it doesn’t have sufficient contracts to make it viable after the company failed to win additional UK government orders.

We must learn to live with Covid, so we are told, which also means, presumably, that we must also learn to live with Covid testing for the foreseeable future and perhaps longer.

The UK’s 13 large providers of lateral flow tests have formed the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation to set and police their own standards.

With a strong, and potentially viable, manufacturing capacity and a seemingly ongoing demand for its products, both consumer and producer in this market deserves better support than they appear to be getting from the government.

As the sudden emergence of Omicron demonstrated, forecasting demand is problematic, and, like flu, Covid may become seasonal.

However, the market for tests is not limited to this country – fewer than one per cent of tests have gone to lower-income countries.

As we have become practised in self-testing, future demand may come from tests that distinguish Covid from flu or the common cold.

However you look at it, ending free tests would be short-sighted from both public health and business perspectives and should be resisted.

Ivor Campbell is chief executive of Callander-based Snedden Campbell, a specialist recruitment consultant for the medical technology industry

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