MANCHESTER / LONDON, England, October 6 (Reuters) – Britain aims early next year to be ready to start charging for some previously free COVID-19 tests, said two sources close to the health services, one first step described as motivated by the desire of the Ministry of Finance to control spending.
Government and health officials have said rapid testing, via easy-to-use lateral flow tests, is crucial in tracking the spread of COVID-19, with regular testing of those without symptoms identifying around one quarter of all cases.
But with a budget statement later this month, the finance ministry wants to try and cut its pandemic-related spending, which is expected to reach £ 407 billion ($ 555 billion).
As part of the so-called winter plan, released last month, the government said it would “continue to provide the public with access to free lateral flow testing in the months to come.”
“At a later stage, as the government’s response to the virus changes, the free and universal provision of LFDs (lateral flow devices) will end, and individuals and businesses using the tests will bear the cost,” a- he added.
The government ended free lateral flow testing for businesses in England in July. According to the two sources close to the health system, steps are being taken to prepare a charging system for early next year for widespread use.
These measures include ensuring that payment capabilities are available on the government website at the beginning of January.
It is not known when the charge would be introduced. A source said the decision would depend on hospitalization figures for COVID-19 and the infection rate.
When asked if he would end the universal offer of free tests early next year, Health Minister Sajid Javid told Reuters: “At the moment he is available. We haven’t made any decisions about next year. “
The finance ministry declined to add to the health minister’s comments. But Finance Minister Rishi Sunak has said he will put Britain’s public finances back on a sustainable path, raising fears of spending cuts.
KEEP THIS PRICE “AS LOW AS POSSIBLE”
Under the universal provision, the government has made the tests available for free to order online or pick up at local pharmacies since April, and recommends that people test themselves about twice a week.
According to the latest government data available, for the week of September 16 to 22, more than 4.4 million rapid tests of asymptomatic people were recorded, of which nearly 50,000 were positive.
The health ministry declined to say how much the tests cost, citing commercial contracts. A source said they could fetch 30 pounds ($ 40.70) for a seven pack.
Other European countries have started charging for testing, including Germany, which reportedly ended its free provision this month.
But business groups have said that, along with the vaccines, rapid mass testing has been a game-changer by allowing Britain to open up, and withdrawing the free supply too soon could be damaging.
For sectors such as the hospitality industry, which have been particularly hard hit by months of shutdowns during repeated pandemic shutdowns, free testing has been crucial in building confidence among staff and customers.
“If the government did not pay for it, we would like to use government influence to make sure this solution is cost effective for employers,” said Kate Nicholls, managing director of industry group UK Hospitality.
“We have to make sure that we keep this price as low as possible,” she added. “For small businesses, it would be very difficult for them to meet that kind of cost. “
($ 1 = 0.7332 pounds)
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and Alistair Smout; additional reporting by William Schomberg, edited by Bill Berkrot
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