Why we’re talking about . . .

Will lateral flow tests end up on the black market?

Announcement that free tests will end triggers stockpiling from pharmacies

Brits are scrambling to get lateral flow tests after Boris Johnson announced they will no longer be free from 1 April.

The Covid-19 tests were temporarily unavailable for delivery on the government website yesterday, as the UK Health Security Agency capped the number of kits being handed out.

A box of seven tests can now be ordered only every three days, instead of every 24 hours, to prevent stockpiling and “to stop a black market developing in lateral flow kits”, said The Independent. But pictures on social media this week showed people with “towers of NHS test packs”, and pharmacies “reported stockpiling attempts across the country”, said The Times.

The black market

While many people will be gathering Covid-19 tests for their own use, others have been known to sell kits for a premium during the pandemic. 

An investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live last March found dozens of adverts for tests on social media sites and eBay. One seller, claiming to be an “NHS approved supplier”, was charging £10 plus postage for individual tests, reported the Daily Mail. At the time, free rapid testing had not been rolled out across the country and was available only for certain groups.

The Department of Health told 5 Live that selling the kits for personal gain was “illegal and reprehensible”, warning buyers there was no guarantee the tests were genuine, while eBay said it had “removed multiple listings and taken action on sellers’ accounts”.

As Omicron cases surged in December and pharmacies ran out of tests, the Manchester Evening News discovered free kits being sold online again. An image of one “unused and sealed” box was offered on social media for £100 before it was removed, said the newspaper. An eBay spokesperson insisted that Covid-19 tests were “banned for sale” on the website.

The demand for tests

Although the legal requirement to self-isolate will end tomorrow, the government is still advising people who test positive to stay at home. After 1 April, however, Johnson has said only that the government “will encourage people with Covid-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others”.

In The Guardian, Christina Pagel argued that this “relies on everyone being able to see that there’s a potential problem”, something that will be “much more difficult” as “testing, surveillance and reporting of infection rates are scaled back”.

Those who cannot afford to pay for testing or to miss work may be “forced to gamble on the health of themselves and others”, warned the British Medical Association’s Chaand Nagpaul in the BMJ.

Professor Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Daily Mirror last month that ending free testing “would create a black market and widen inequality”.

The price

It was initially claimed that tests would cost around £2 to £5 or £20 for a pack of seven, but “ministers clarified on Tuesday that retailers would be free to decide how much to charge with no government controls on pricing”, said the i news site.

Boots has been among the first to announce its prices, with tests selling online from today for £5.99 each or £17 for a pack of four. From next month, this will be reduced to £2.50 for one or £12 for a pack of five, it said.

Over-75s and the vulnerable can still get free symptomatic tests, but Lord Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, said he had “real concerns about getting rid of free testing”, with many people wanting to take tests to protect elderly or vulnerable friends and family.

Speaking on behalf of the government, Lords leader Baroness Evans of Bowes Park said: “We are going to be working with retailers to establish and develop a private market for lateral flow tests. Private markets have operated in the US and many European countries for some time now.

“Retailers will be setting the price but we will be ensuring that the private testing market is properly regulated, including monitoring prices charged, and we will of course continue to work with UK companies in developing lateral flow tests.”

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