Two free tests per week policy risks 'wasting a huge amount of money'

Covid twice-a-week testing blitz begins with Boots and local pharmacies offering Brits free packs of rapid swabs – but expert warns scheme could be a ‘huge waste of money’

  • Boots and local pharmacies are now offering two free rapid tests per week
  • Matt Hancock says tests ‘one of our most effective weapons in tackling virus’ 
  • Professor Stephen Reicher says scheme risks wasting ‘huge amount of money’ 

England’s Covid testing blitz began today, with everyone in the country now able to get swabbed twice a week in the aim of getting life back to normal.

Boots and local pharmacies are now offering tests that adults can go in and pick up for free, even if they don’t have any symptoms of the virus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock hailed the scheme as  ‘one of our most effective weapons in tackling this virus’ and said it would cut the spread of asymptomatic Covid, which is a huge driver of the pandemic.

But experts today labelled the scheme as ‘a huge waste of money’ unless more support is given to people to self-isolate. 

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which advises ministers, said more financial and practical support is needed.

And professor John Deeks last week said the mass testing of secondary school pupils — who were already on a two-tests-per-week programme — is costing £120,000 for every case it detects.

Ministers say the new programme is an essential part of the easing of restrictions, helping identify variants and stopping individual cases from becoming outbreaks.

It comes as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordered ‘profiteering’ private testing companies to slash the cost of laboratory-based PCR checks to make international travel more affordable. 

Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which advises ministers, said more financial and practical support is needed for people who have to self-isolate

Ed Cockroft receives a rapid Covid test at Express Test in Cabot Circus car park in Bristol

The lateral flow kits available on the new scheme are free of charge and dished out at approved testing sites, pharmacies and by post.

Boots told MailOnline today people can turn up to the pharmacy today and do not need to pre-book their tests in advance. 

To encourage people to get into the habit of using the tests, a major public information campaign is launching which will run across TV, radio and social media.

Matt Hancock said: ‘Around one in three people have coronavirus without any symptoms, so getting tested regularly is one of the simplest and easiest ways we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. 

Grant Shapps says people CAN ‘start to think’ about booking holidays abroad as he orders ‘profiteering’ Covid testing companies to slash the cost of PCR checks 

Grant Shapps has ordered ‘profiteering’ private testing companies to slash the cost of laboratory-based PCR checks to make international travel more affordable as he said people can now ‘start to think’ about booking a summer holiday abroad. 

The Transport Secretary today set out more details of the Government’s new traffic light scheme which will see countries rated green, amber or red based on criteria like vaccination levels and case numbers when international travel resumes, potentially as early as May 17. 

Travel from ‘green’ countries will be quarantine-free and people will have to take one test after flying home, rather than the current two, while ministers are also said to be considering giving travellers free lateral flow tests to take abroad to be used before they start their return journey.

However, the requirement for people to take a PCR test when they get back to Britain has sparked a furious backlash from airline bosses who said it ‘makes no sense’ and could restrict foreign holidays to only the rich. 

The tests can cost around £120, leaving an average family of four with a potential bill of nearly £500 on top of flights and accommodation.      

Mr Shapps admitted this morning that ‘costs are definitely a concern’ and people ‘have to accept we are still going through a global pandemic’ which means the checks cannot currently be abandoned. 

But he vowed to ‘drive down the costs’ of the PCR tests as he warned companies who charge too much will be removed from the Government’s recommended provider list.

The unveiling of the traffic light system included the promise of a review at the end of June which could see quarantine and testing requirements slashed for a number of popular locations in time for summer holidays. 

One Whitehall source said Greece could make it on to the so-called ‘green list’ next month despite a recent rise in cases, while the USA, Gibraltar, Malta and much of the Caribbean are also tipped for green status. 

Some airlines want the testing requirement for travel from ‘green’ countries to be ditched entirely or replaced with cheaper lateral flow tests. Others want the UK to adopt the same policy as in France, where travellers can get free, government-subsidised PCR tests at some airports if they show their plane ticket. 

Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said the proposed PCR testing requirement risked making international travel ‘just something for the wealthy’. 

EasyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren said the sector is being held to a different standard than other parts of the economy.  

He said: ‘They are opening up the UK economy with lateral flow tests that are much cheaper, and much more accessible, so I can see the argument if they wanted to have some type of test that do a cheaper lateral flow test and if you tested positive you could then go on an do a PCR test’. 

Today’s Global Travel Taskforce report will not commit to a concrete start date for the resumption of non-essential foreign trips, which are currently banned, but ministers are still hoping that some flights can resume from the target roadmap date of May 17. 

‘I’d encourage everyone to take up the offer and test twice a week.

‘Alongside the successful rollout of the vaccination programme, rapid testing will be one of our most effective weapons in tackling this virus and ensuring we can cautiously reopen our economy and parts of society that we have all missed.

‘The British people have made a tremendous effort throughout the pandemic and I am confident they will do the same now by taking up this offer of free, rapid tests.’

Around one in three people with Covid do not experience any symptoms and may be spreading the virus unwittingly.

The Hands, Face, Space, Fresh Air campaign will update to remind the public of the need to use the NHS Covid-19 app to check in to premises including outdoor hospitality, hairdressers and gyms from Sunday.

Improvements to the venue check in journey mean all members of a party will either have to check in using the app or leave manual contact details. 

Users who have been at a venue where multiple people tested positive will now be encouraged to book a test, as well as monitoring their symptoms to further prevent asymptomatic transmission.

TV doctor and practicing NHS GP Dr Zoe Williams said: ‘Twice weekly testing will be crucial in helping us manage the spread of the virus as society starts to reopen. 

‘The tests are quick and easy to do, and results come back in 30 minutes. Key workers such as myself and my colleagues have been carrying these out for the last few months, and it’s amazing how quickly they have become second nature to us.

‘However, it’s important to remember that there is not one silver bullet in the fight against Covid-19, and even with a negative test result, we must still follow social distancing guidelines – hands, face, space, fresh air, and go for our vaccines when called.’

But critics say the programme risks wasting huge amounts of money because of the number of false positives produced by rapid lateral flow tests. 

Today Professor Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, told Sky News the main reason for offering the public two lateral flow tests per week was to get them to self-isolate if infected.

He said: ‘The problem is that, at the moment, we’re concentrating on that one piece of the system without thinking about the other parts.

‘And the consequence is not only that people don’t self isolate. It also suggests that because people can’t afford to self-isolate, they don’t get tested in the first place.

‘That was very clear last year when mass testing was done in Liverpool, where in deprived parts of the city only half as many people came forward for testing as in more affluent places.’

Professor Reicher said that, for some people, self-isolating is impractical or they lose pay and ‘the way out of that is just simply to avoid a test’.

The solution is ‘something that has been suggested for months now, actually probably since the beginning of the pandemic a year ago, which is that we need to give more support to self-isolation,’ he added.

‘To test people without thinking about what you’re going to do with those tests, making those things possible, is wasting a huge amount of money.

‘We’re spending £37billion on testing. It makes neither public health sense, nor economic sense, to waste that money for want of spending on giving people the support they need to self-isolate.’

The tests are being rolled out across at over 1,500 Boots pharmacies in England today.

Chief Pharmacist at Boots UK Marc Donovan said: ‘Regular rapid Covid testing using lateral flow devices is a fast and easy way to find out if you have Covid. 

‘It’s a vital part of the government’s road map to cautiously ease restrictions. Around one in three people who have COVID-19 have no symptoms and could be spreading it without knowing. 

‘Testing regularly will help identify people who have the virus so they can self-isolate to help prevent the virus spreading, keeping your family, friends and colleagues safer and helping us all to keep life moving.

‘The tests are easy to do and the result is provided in around 30 minutes. 

‘The more of us that take part the more we can hep protect each other. If you think you have Covid symptoms, you should self-isolate immediately and head over to the government website to arrange a free PCR test, and follow the guidance depending on your result.’ 

Earlier this week, health minister Edward Argar told BBC Breakfast he expected the lateral flow tests to be used by people returning to work in the coming weeks as the ‘economy starts opening up again’.

He said fewer than one in 1,000 lateral flow tests gave a false positive result and refused to set an ‘arbitrary’ date for when testing would end.

Mr Argar said the tests would be paid for as part of NHS Test and Trace’s funding of £37 billion over two years, with 80 per cent of that expected to be used for testing.

But last week Professor Deeks warned mass testing of secondary school pupils is costing £120,000 for every case it detects.

Data shows there were 1,805 positive results out of 3.8million tests taken from March 11 to 18. Given the current best-guess false-positive rate, only 645 of those are likely to be genuine infections.

‘At £20-a-test, that’s £120,000 per case found,’ Professor John Deeks from the University of Birmingham told The Daily Telegraph.

He told the newspaper the ‘vast majority’ of positive results from rapid coronavirus tests used at secondary schools are likely to be wrong.

Cases have fallen rapidly among children since the start of the year, with just 0.05 per cent of youngsters thought to infected at the moment — just one in 2,000. 

Professor Deeks, head of the university’s Biostatistics, Evidence Synthesis and Test Evaluation Research Group, warned it becomes harder to distinguish the true size of outbreaks using lateral flow tests when cases plummet to such low levels.

A gold-standard Cochrane review last month authored by co-authored professor Deeks found lateral flow tests were prone to giving false positives, when a test says someone is infected but they aren’t.

Dr Ann Van den Bruel, associate professor of primary care at KU Leuven in Belgium, and an author of the review, said: ‘The risk of the false positives in the screening setting is very high.

‘You may end up having the opposite effect of what you want to achieve and you may have to close more workplaces, more classes.’

The review found one of the kits being used in the UK failed to meet international standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHAT IS THE MASS TESTING PROGRAMME AND HOW WILL IT WORK? 

What is being proposed?

Ministers want everyone in England to take a Covid test twice a week to help quickly identify any surge in cases as the economy and society are unlocked in the coming months.

How will it work?

People will be able to order so-called lateral flow tests for use at home, or get tested at work or at sites run by local councils. They are already used by millions of children following the return to school last month.

What are lateral flow tests?

These pregnancy-style tests can deliver results at home within half an hour. Like a regular test they involve taking a swab from the back of the throat and nose but the samples do not have to be sent for laboratory analysis.

Are these tests reliable?

They are not as sensitive as a standard PCR laboratory test. One study found they missed 40 per cent of asymptomatic cases. However, they perform much better at picking up cases where people have a high viral load. The Government says they have picked up 120,000 cases which would not otherwise have been identified.

What if I test positive?

People who test positive will be asked to self-isolate in the normal way, as well as providing details of their contacts to the Test and Trace service.

What about false positives?

Recent analysis by NHS Test and Trace suggests fewer than one in a thousand lateral flow tests will produce a false positive. However, anyone who does test positive will be offered a PCR test to confirm the result.

How much will this cost?

Officials were tight-lipped about the likely cost, but acknowledge it will run into billions of pounds. Lateral flow tests are much cheaper than the standard PCR ones, with some reports suggesting the Government can buy them for as little as £5 each. But if 25 million people were to test twice a week, the cost would still top £1 billion a month.

What will it cost me?

Nothing. The Government will pick up the bill for all tests.

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