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22 February 2022

Don’t believe the hype – ending free tests is a good thing

We're spending billions on lateral flow kits which are handed out like sweeties.

By Christopher Snowdon

Of all the bad takes on the government’s decision to stop handing out free lateral flow tests, announced yesterday, the worst goes along the lines of: “If the Tories can find £37 billion to spaff up the wall on Test and Trace, it should be able to find money to give people free tests.”

Free tests are, of course, a fundamental part of NHS Test and Trace, and that is where most of the £37 billion has gone. If it carries on spending money at the current rate, its budget will have been eaten up in a few months (which is reasonable enough since it was a two-year budget). In the second half of 2021 it had average spending of just over £2 billion a month. In December it spent £2.8 billion. 

To date the UK has carried out 470 million Covid tests, more than any other country. On a per capita basis, only seven countries have done more testing, if you include micro-nations like Saint Kitts & Nevis and the Faroe Islands. Moreover, the 470 million figure only includes tests recorded by the government. No one knows how many free lateral flow tests have gone unregistered.

We have been testing at twice the rate of Italy and four times the rates of Germany and South Korea. Part of the reason for this is that testing in the UK has always been “free” (ie paid for through taxation). The question now is whether we should continue spending more money on mass testing for a defanged virus than we do on primary care.

NHS Test and Trace has been the subject of an extraordinary amount of misinformation since it was set up in May 2020. There are corners of the internet where people seem to genuinely believe that £37 billion was given personally to Dido Harding or to Serco and that all the money was spent on an app. It is widely believed that the system has “failed”. In fact, Harding has not been involved with it since last April, Serco never received more than a small portion of the budget and the amount spent on the app was smaller still. Nearly all of its money goes on testing and if that has failed, why are so many people desperate to keep doing it?

Test and Trace does much more than mail out lateral flow tests. It has 700 testing sites operating seven days a week and it is doing 200,000 PCR tests a day. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the expense is eye-watering. We carried out 47 million tests last month at a cost of £40-60 each, when a lateral flow test can be bought on the open market for a couple of quid. 

The system is therefore not just expensive, it is inefficient. Because they are “free”, people take tests when they don’t really need to. Schools, universities and workplaces hand them out like sweeties. The system itself is no doubt riddled with waste and bureaucracy. Critics of Test and Trace may have a point when they say that a lot of the Test and Trace money has been squandered. You and I can imagine the system being more cost-effective if we were in charge, but we are not in charge and this is the system. Do we want to keep ploughing so many billions of pounds into it? 

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We don’t need to test a million people a day to track the virus. The Office for National Statistics’ excellent Infection Survey will continue doing that. Most people will heed the advice to stay at home if they have symptoms, with or without a positive test. Those who won’t are the kind of people who are already avoided self-isolation by not reporting a positive test on the app.

Mass testing has been useful during the pandemic, but it has always been costly and its benefits are diminishing. There are 101 better ways to spend £2 billion a month.

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