The UK government is preparing to make nearly £43bn available to companies that can help deliver on its mass Covid-19 testing vision, which aims to roll out rapid turnround tests across the country.
Private and public sector organisations are being invited to apply for three tenders for the supply of new testing technologies as part of prime minister Boris Johnson’s so-called “Project Moonshot” testing programme.
It is anticipated that hundreds of companies will apply to supply products and services to the government as part of the open procurement process.
One tender worth £22bn, released by Public Health England last week, is open to companies that make different testing equipment, including medical devices and “a range of clinical laboratory diagnostic testing services”. It will last for two years, with the option to extend for two more.
Another tender notice released by NHS Supply Chain — which manages the sourcing, delivery and supply of healthcare products — covers the provision of so-called point-of-care tests and diagnostics equipment. The value of the tender has been lifted from £5bn to £20bn “due to the pandemic situation resulting in an immediate overall increased spend in support of [the] Covid-19 testing programme”.
Although a specific time period is not mentioned, the NHS tender stipulates that “these contracts are likely to be multiyear”.
Together, the two tenders are worth more than three times the total spent on police in England and Wales in 2018-19.
Last week, Liverpool became the first city in the UK to trial mass population testing, although the ambitious plan to test the entire population for coronavirus over 14 days is struggling to scale up quickly, suggesting it may have to be extended.
The PHE tender does not specifically mention coronavirus. However, executives at companies that manufacture and supply Covid-19 testing equipment told the Financial Times they had been invited to apply “to support all five pillars of the UK testing strategy”.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic, we have drawn on the expertise and resources of a number of public and private sector partners to support our testing programme.”
The figures represented a maximum value, and not necessarily the final amount that would be spent, the DHSC said.
Meanwhile, a third tender, covering a much shorter period of just three-and-a-half months and published on Monday, offered £912m for the supply of lateral flow tests, which give results in between 10 and 30 minutes. Lateral flow tests cost in the range of £5 to £30 each, meaning this sum could potentially buy the government more than enough devices to test the entire population once.
Companies have a total of four days to respond to the third tender, “due to the current state of urgency faced by the authority in implementing measures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic”. The other two tenders gave a one-month deadline.
In September, the campaign group, the Good Law Project, launched a judicial review against the government’s Project Moonshot, claiming it was an “initiative involving the intention to spend c. £100bn of public money on a new, mass population Covid-19 testing programme providing 6-10m tests a day”.
Although the government issued a legal response at the time claiming that “no financial commitment has been entered into approaching anything like that sum”, the maximum value of the tender agreements published in the past few days would come to a sum worth just under half that figure.