Dido Harding, head of the government’s beleaguered test-and-trace programme, has suggested rapid coronavirus tests might be a “business and consumer product” for symptom-free people.
The comments prompted claims from Labour that a “two-tier ‘pay-to-hug’” system was being considered.
Earlier this month Matt Hancock, health secretary, put forward the idea that millions of people could be tested each day to ensure they did not have the disease. Touted as part of an ambitious ‘Project Moonshot’ plan, new technology would deliver results in as little as 20 minutes. Mr Hancock suggested this would open up the possibility of a resumption of a more normal life.
But, in remarks to the CBI employers organisation on Monday, Baroness Harding said that, while people with symptoms would always have recourse to testing on the NHS, speedy tests for those without symptoms might be part of “the cost of business” for companies.
Her response came after she was asked if the health department was contemplating a charge on businesses for having employees tested. More rapid turnaround, lower sensitivity and specificity tests that might be able to show someone was not infectious for the next few hours “could potentially have use for cases in the future where you are testing to prove you are negative . . . for a short period of time”, she said.
Considerable research and development has gone into developing the technology which might enable more parts of the economy to get back to normal.
Baroness Harding added: “In that environment, I can imagine that that’s actually a business and consumer product rather than a symptomatic healthcare product.”
She added that, where non-symptomatic people were concerned, “I can see a world that, for that sort of test, that might be a normal cost of doing business to be able to have non-socially distanced activities, but that’s different from symptomatic people who should feel like they can always come to an NHS service.”
Criticism of Baroness Harding has escalated in the past two weeks amid a weight of evidence that demand for tests is badly outstripping supply, keeping children out of school and preventing key workers such as nurses and teachers from going to work.
For Labour, Alex Norris, shadow public health minister, said: “The current testing fiasco will not be sorted by creating a two-tier ‘pay-to-hug’ system for families across the country.”
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Instead of threatening to charge people for coronavirus tests, the government should be focused on fixing the system, he said.
Mr Norris called on Boris Johnson, prime minister, “to rule this proposal out and put forward a credible plan to expand testing” when he makes an announcement about more coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are investing in new, faster tests to be available to the public, for free, through NHS Test and Trace for those who need it.
“Deploying the next generation of tests, which may reduce the need for social distancing in specific circumstances, will require a collaboration between businesses, government and the NHS. We continue to explore these options,” it added.
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