Free coronavirus tests are becoming a burden on the state, ministers fear, as it emerges the Government is considering a “sticker” scheme to coax firms to foot the bill for testing staff.
Officials are examining how to incentivise sectors that currently get public-funded testing to pay commercial providers for the service, under moves to shift the cost away from the taxpayer, The Telegraph has learned.
A so-called sticker system, under which businesses could boast “we test here”, has been floated on Whitehall as a way to incentivise firms to pay for lateral flow devices, which cost several pounds each.
It would stop short of a formal certification scheme, but allow companies to signal to their staff and to potential recruits that they are a responsible and caring employer.
However, the future winding down of government-funded tests is likely.
The idea has been likened to rainbow stickers, which many firms add to their logo and marketing during Pride month to show their support for LGBT+ rights.
Ministers spent more than £4 billion on lateral flow devices up until the end of March, with concerns growing about the “eye-watering” burden of the cost continuing to fall on the Exchequer.
On Thursday, a Treasury source told The Telegraph: “We’ve always said provision would be time limited. Individuals with symptoms can still get a test free of charge.”
There is also frustration in Government about the scale of waste occurring through the current model, which allows individuals to pick up free tests by ordering them online or collecting them from pharmacies.
The Government has already ended new registrations for a scheme that allowed businesses to mass order tests to hand out to employees, either to use at work or collect and take home to self-test.
Firms already registered can only order tests up until July 19, at which point the scheme ends.
Only one in seven of the 655 million LFD tests distributed in England by late May this year was subsequently registered, according to a report last week by the National Audit Office, Whitehall’s spending watchdog. It is unknown how many of the other 559 million have been used but not registered online.
What’s the difference between a PCR test and a lateral flow test?
At present, NHS Test and Trace orders those who have come into “close contact” with a confirmed Covid-19 case to isolate for 10 days. If that requirement is replaced soon by a daily testing regime for close contacts, as ministers are considering, the need for lateral flow devices will spike.
It is now considered a government priority to help build a strong, well-regulated private marketplace for Covid-19 tests, in which consumers have confidence. The timetable is uncertain, but some believe it is possible by later this year.
Ministers have already legislated to introduce an accreditation requirement for providers of testing services and aim to bring in independent validation of tests.
While the Government does not regulate the cost of tests and testing services by private healthcare providers, it hopes that increasing competition will drive down prices.
It was Baroness Harding of Winscombe, the former head of NHS Test & Trace, who is said to have first pushed plans to build up the commercial provision of tests.
A Whitehall source said: “Dido [Harding] is a retailer. Her obsession was making Test & Trace a commercial, customer-focussed organisation. It was her strategy.”
Do you have confidence in NHS Test and Trace?
The Government is pressing ahead with the plan, despite her recent departure when NHS T&T was subsumed into the new UK Health Security Agency, “to save the enormous pressure on the public purse it’s causing”, the source said.
There is scepticism from some quarters that a private marketplace will be created in time to be of any use for tackling coronavirus, however. Under this scenario it could become a dormant structure standing ready for use in the event of a future health crisis.