Tom Harwood: 'Even if lateral flow tests are free somebody has to pay eventually - the taxpayer'

With the Government considering ending the practice of sending out free lateral flow tests, Tom Harwood worries about who is really paying for the pandemic

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Now one claim that popped up again in the Sunday papers is that the Government is considering ending the practice of sending out millions of packs of lateral flow tests every week, free at the point of use.

Currently more than a million packs a day are being delivered across the country, representing 50 million tests a week.

Now I really shouldn't need to say this next part: even if a test is free at the point of use, somebody has to pay eventually.

And as with the entire pandemic, that somebody will be the taxpayer.

To be clear I think it is vanishingly unlikely free tests will disappear before the end of the winter, the Education Secretary said as much yesterday.

But obviously this situation cannot go on forever.

Bizarrely however we have this weekend experienced an extraordinary moment of cognitive dissonance.

Politicians demanding these tests remain quote unquote 'free', when for the last year they have been complaining about the enormous cost of the Test and Trace programme.

A prime example is the Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who decried what he described as £37 billion being spent on test and trace, only to then demand, the genuinely world beating testing capacity of the UK remains totally free.

How does he square that circle?

The UK tests more than any country in Europe because we plunge more taxpayer cash into testing than any other country in Europe.

Clearly justifiable in the middle of a pandemic.

But obviously a situation that cannot go on forever.

Now critics may say that the cost of Test and Trace is somehow all going in to tracing, to call centres, not to tests.

But that is categorically untrue.

In the first year of the programme: from April 2020 to April 2021, Test and Trace spent £22 billion.

That's right, the famous £37 billion number has not yet been spent.

Well how much of that Year 1 £22 billion went on contact tracing?

£1.3 billion.Yes the rest, the other 95% of the spend in Year 1 went to labs, logistics, machines, PCR testing, and yes Lateral Flow tests.

According to the Financial Times, the Year 1 spend on Lateral Flow tests was estimated to be £9 billion.

Nine billion. Seven times the Year 1 allocation to contract tracing.And it's important to note here that rapid lateral flow tests were not readily available for much of Year 1.

When the accounts for Year 2, up to this coming April, are published I have no doubt that spend on rapid testing will be higher.

The UK's record on testing is admirable, we have delivered genuinely impressive infrastructure.

More tests are more readily available in the UK than just about anywhere else on the planet. But let's not deny how this has all come at a significant cost.