The government has made what is believed to be its last bulk order of lateral flows devices as it looks to transition the UK away from mass day-to-day Covid testing.
A total of 780 million LFDs were ordered from numerous manufacturers last month, The Independent has been told, with officials confident that the supplies will see the UK through to the end of April at the current rate of consumption.
Internal analysis suggests that the public is getting through 97 million lateral flow tests a week.
A source involved in the UK’s Covid testing operation said current supplies were “hand to mouth”, with the order for 780 million LFDs set to be delivered by manufacturers in the coming weeks. The source said it was unlikely the government would make any further mass orders.
On Monday, levelling up minister Michael Gove refused to deny that the free LFDs could be phased out in the coming weeks, after reports the government is preparing to remove the tests for the wider public under plans for living with Covid.
The Independent has been told the government could pull the lateral flows by the end of March. As part of the new testing strategy being considered by officials, free tests would only be provided to people in high-risk settings, such as care homes, hospitals and schools, according to The Sunday Times.
Prior to the emergence of Omicron, there was concern among health officials that the UK’s large stockpile of lateral flow tests would go unused and eventually expire.
However, the fast-spreading nature of the variant has driven a surge in demand for the lateral flow tests, forcing the government back into the market.
Key logistical concerns raised by officials will be how to transport the supplies into the country and where to store them, with the UK reliant on various overseas manufacturers, having failed to establish production ties with a range of British companies.
Prime minister Boris Johnson insisted on Monday that free lateral flow tests would be available for “as long as it is necessary”.
The government’s plan for dealing with Covid-19 over the autumn and winter had indicated that at some stage universal free provision of lateral flow devices would end.
The PM’s spokesman said it was “too early to say” when it will be right to consider a different approach given the extremely high prevalence of the virus currently.
Mr Gove said the lateral flow tests were “a vital tool in making sure that we can curb the spread of the infection and also that people who are needed to isolate do so”.
However, scientific advisers to No 10 have warned that the current shortage of lateral flow devices and high pressure on the UK’s lab-based PCR network is hampering attempts to track the spread of Omicron.
Professor Graham Medley, chair of the government’s advisory group on pandemic modelling, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think that at the moment the testing capacity issues, and the Christmas and the new year, mean that we can’t really rely on cases to tell us what’s going to happen exactly.”
Professor Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology and member of Sage’s sub-group on pandemic behaviour, said the shortages and the fact that “people [are] less likely to report self-administered tests” meant the current daily caseloads were a “considerable under-estimation”.