Health officials are going to start charging for lateral flow tests at the end of June, according to a leaked document.
In what is being described by some as a “risky gambit” the Government will ditch free covid-19 tests in a bid to curb huge taxpayer spend and try to ‘live with the virus’.
Ministers have previously said they will end the universal free provision of easy-to-use lateral flow devices (LFDs) at a “later stage”, with individuals and businesses bearing the cost in future.
The Department of Health has declined to say what the tests cost, citing commercial contracts, but one source has said they can run to £30 for a pack of seven.
A document, which was shared between health agencies to prepare scenarios for the change, shows that the timetable for the switch to paid-for tests has been pushed back from earlier in the year because of the arrival of the Omicron variant.
The document says officials are now working on the premise that an online ordering system should be ready at the end of June.
Most people, excluding key workers, will then be directed to providers of paid-for LFDs in what is described as a “ramp down of the Universal Testing Offer”.
That target could move again if the virus throws what one official close to the health service described as a “curve ball”, perhaps in the form of another variant.
A government spokesman said last night: “We will continue to provide free tests as long as necessary.
“It is one of the most important lines of defence, alongside our vaccines programme.
“With cases remaining high, we continue to process millions of tests a day – more than any European country – providing a free LFD to anybody who needs one.”
The tests have been freely available to order online or pick up from local pharmacies since April. The UK Health Security Agency said that between December 30 and January 5 more than 8 million were conducted, the highest weekly figure on record.
The document said there would be a “triage” system to direct people as to whether they were eligible or not for a free LFD.
It acknowledged that some of those who expected to get a free test but could no longer get one would react “negatively”.
There was a possibility, the document said, that those people could try to game the system to access a free test.
Britain has seen a drop in coronavirus cases and a fall in hospital admissions from recent highs, leading some in government to hope that so-called Plan B restrictions in place could be removed before the end of the month.
Iain Buchan, who led a trial of the tests in Liverpool, said Britain’s distinctive approach of making the rapid tests freely available for months, unlike many other countries, had been a success, and cautioned against introducing charges for tests.
He said: “Viruses move quicker than free market economics.”
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