U.K. Has No Idea If Millions of Rapid Covid Tests Are Being Used

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Boris Johnson’s government spent billions of pounds on rapid Covid-19 test kits but has no idea if most of them are being used, the spending watchdog said in its latest report on the U.K.’s pandemic response.

A total of 691 million tests have been sent to homes, workplaces, schools and care settings across England as of May 26 -- but the results of only 96 million, or 14%, were reported, the National Audit Office said on Friday.

It means the government, which spent three billion pounds ($4.2 billion) buying about one billion rapid test kits through March, doesn’t know how many of the unregistered tests were used, it added.

The findings are likely to fuel further criticism of the government, which has frequently touted the importance of mass testing as central to the U.K. returning to normal after suffering one of the world’s highest death tolls in the pandemic. The ability to quickly identify and control outbreaks is seen as fundamental to the economic recovery, alongside a vaccination program that aims to deliver at least one dose to every adult by July 19.

But the test-and-trace program -- which spent 13.5 billion pounds of its 22.2 billion-pound budget in the fiscal year 2020-21, according to the report --- has repeatedly come under fire for failing to deliver on key metrics.

Though performance of the test-and-trace system has improved since October last year, it fell “well below its targets” when coronavirus cases rose sharply in December -- providing results for just 17% of PCR tests in the community within the target 24 hours. This increased to 90% in April.

Lack of Compliance

Another issue is public compliance, which is “still low and variable,” the report found. Only a minority of people with symptoms request a test, and not everyone self-isolates properly.

Now ministers want to understand why so few people are reporting results from rapid lateral flow tests, which take under 30 minutes and are offered to people who don’t have symptoms of coronavirus to check if they are infected.

“Pressing challenges need to be tackled,” said NAO chief Gareth Davies, including “understanding how many lateral flow devices are actually being used and increasing public compliance with testing and self-isolation.”

Johnson started a campaign in April urging the public to take tests twice a week, with everyone now able to order them free through the post.

Health workers and staff at schools, nurseries and elderly care homes have had access to regular rapid testing for months, and companies have also been able to order tests for their employees.

“NHS Test and Trace has played an essential role in combating this pandemic, and the NAO has recognized many of the rapid improvements we have made in the short lifespan of this organization,” a Department of Health spokesperson said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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