Monday 15 March 2021 5:04 pm

Government signs deals for 200m rapid Covid tests ahead of lockdown lifting

The government has signed deals with two British companies to supply 200m rapid Covid-19 tests ahead of plans to roll out a “mass testing blitz” once lockdown restrictions are lifted.

The Department of Health announced it has inked agreements with Scotland-based Omega Diagnostics and Bedforshire-headquartered Global Access Diagnostics to produce the tests, which have a turnaround time of as little as 30 minutes.

Details of the deals have not yet been published. According to publicly available contracts, the government has so far spent at least £1.5bn on rapid Covid tests — also known as lateral flow devices (LFDs).

Despite previous concerns surrounding their efficacy, NHS Test and Trace analysis published last week suggested the tests have a specificity of at least 99.9 per cent.

Ministers have made strides to develop a domestic diagnostics industry since the outbreak of the pandemic, as part of an effort to slim down the UK’s dependence on foreign supplies.

The government last year launched Project Defend to bolster British manufacturing and wean the UK off Chinese imports. As part of the drive, it paid consulting firm PA Consulting £6.2m to find British manufacturers of LFDs.

The lateral flow test contracts are expected to create around 470 additional jobs across Alva in Scotland and Thurleigh in Bedfordshire, and more widely across the production line and wider UK supply chain.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said they would “help us identify cases of the virus we otherwise wouldn’t find and preventing the virus spreading in our workplaces and communities”.

“These tests will help keep businesses open, our children return to school, people to visit their loved ones in care homes safely,” he added.

Almost 50,000 businesses in the UK have registered to take part in the government’s free workplace testing programme, which will see rapid Covid tests used to return staff to the workplace.

It comes as industry leaders start plotting for the return of staff to the office, with current “stay at home” orders due to expire on 29 March under the Prime Minister’s roadmap for leaving lockdown.

NHS Test and Trace is preparing to send out more than 400,000 rapid flow tests by post each day in a bid to get the country back to normal, in a campaign titled “Are you ready? Get testing. Go”.

It is hoped the scheme will encourage Brits to get tested even if they do not show symptoms, with around one-in-three infections thought to be asymptomatic.

Prime Minster Boris Johnson has also made clear that on-the-spot Covid tests will provide the key to reopening “parts of the economy we couldn’t get open” such as nightclubs and theatres.

Johnson rubbished claims the government is set to introduce domestic vaccine passports to reopen pubs and restaurants, telling a Downing Street press conference last month that rapid flow tests will instead do the job “for those bits that have been the toughest nuts to crack”.

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden yesterday announced a pilot scheme to test crowd safety before lockdown rules ease later this year, that would help audiences return “safely without social distancing”.

Anyone attending the trial events in Liverpool will be required to have a negative Covid-19 test beforehand and will also be tested afterwards to ensure any viral transmission is monitored.