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Sat 23 October 2021

New data reveals another source of significant Government spending during the pandemic, reports Sam Bright

The Government has spent £13 million on text message notifications linked to its lateral flow testing programme, Byline Times can reveal.

A Freedom of Information request submitted last month asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to account for the money that had been spent on text messages confirming lateral flow test results. Lateral flow tests are devices that are used to check whether someone has been infected by COVID-19, providing results within 30 minutes. They can be self-administered or used at testing sites under the supervision of professionals. If someone has attended a testing site, they are sent a text to confirm the result.

The total cost of sending these text messages has been £12,992,336, minus Value Added Tax (VAT). The average cost per notification has been 7.3p minus VAT, meaning that some 178 million messages have been sent.

The deployment of lateral flow tests has been a central feature of the Government’s response to the pandemic, with ministers encouraging people to take the tests – provided for free – if they have no symptoms and want to confirm their COVID-negative status. More sensitive PCR tests are recommended if a person displays symptoms.

However, there has been controversy associated with the roll-out of rapid tests. In June, the National Audit Office (NAO), the independent government spending watchdog, reported that 691 million lateral flow tests had been distributed in a three-month period, yet only 96 million (14%) had been registered as used. The Government has initiated a programme of research to understand why the registration of test results is so low. £4.2 billion has been spent on the deployment of rapid testing, according to the watchdog.

Just a fortnight earlier, questions had also been raised about the UK’s largest supplier of lateral flow tests. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had accused the firm, Innova, of multiple violations including distributing COVID-19 rapid antigen tests in the US without approval and using false data to inflate their performance. Innova has been commissioned to supply £2.3 billion worth of lateral flow tests by the UK Government, which said that the devices had undergone a “rigorous Porton Down assessment process”.

The Government’s COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ operation has been allocated a budget of £37 billion for its first two years, spending £13.5 billion in the year to April 2021. A large portion of this expenditure has been distributed to private companies and consultants. On average, the Test and Trace operation has spent £1,000 a day on each of its 2,000 private sector consultants.

It is of course essential for people to be notified about their COVID-19 test results, although it’s worth questioning whether there was a more cost-effective method available, especially considering the £35 million spent by the Government to develop a contact tracing app.

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