Lateral flow tests: The transition from medical requirement to consumer product

Marysia Leigh
22 August, 22
You would be hard missed to find someone who hasn’t taken a lateral flow test over the past couple of years and today they remain a regular practice for so many people.

You would be hard missed to find someone who hasn’t taken a lateral flow test over the past couple of years and today they remain a regular practice for so many people. Even with the end of free access, the general public is still seeking regular and immediate access to lateral flow tests (LFTs), and they are therefore quickly becoming a commodity being stocked by major retail brands.

The shift in opinion

When first introduced here in the UK, PCR tests were the more prominent and relied-upon option when it came to testing for Covid-19. In the initial months of lateral flow tests being released, there was a lot of debate surrounding their accuracy, with the public and publications alike deeming them as inaccurate. However, the tables have very much turned with their estimated accuracy specificity to be 99.97%. This led to the swift change in regulations in January this year to say that a LFT would no longer need to be confirmed with a follow-up PCR.

End of free access

As of the 1st of April, free lateral flow tests for people in England came to an end for those who are not working in the NHS or other care occupations. Therefore, those looking to continue testing will need to source them via new outlets.

There was a lot of political debate as to if lateral flow tests should have remained free for longer, but what is clear is the public and business desire to continue to test. Today, lateral flow tests remain in high demand, with most pharmacies running out of stock within days of them becoming available. In a recent YouGov survey, it was found that 38% of respondents have between 1-3 boxes of 7 tests already available at home and 58% would use a lateral flow test if they thought they were presenting Covid-19 symptoms.

As the tests are no longer available on the NHS website, people are looking elsewhere. For this, the first point of call was, of course, pharmacies, but soon many other companies have jumped on the LFT bandwagon. Online stores are one of the quickest to start offering single and bulk orders of tests that can be delivered straight to people’s doorsteps, but with such market potential, the saturation of competition grew exponentially overnight, with many having to bid to see any exposure online.

Whilst the ability to deliver these tests to people’s homes is convenient in one sense, the time delays that come with this means they might not always be required by the time they arrived. To service this more immediate need, retailers have now expanded their product portfolio to offer lateral flow tests on their shelves. With hundreds of tests still being bought each week, LFTs could be a real footfall driver for retailers. Some of the big brand names such as Tesco, Morrisons, and B&M are already stocking the tests in a number of their stores.

Let the price war begin

At first, retailers and pharmacies across the country were struggling to get hold of a steady supply of lateral flow tests, but with access now becoming more readily available, the mood is changing. Stock is not the only advantage, meaning both pharmacies and retailers have embarked on a price war.

Superdrug recently released a statement saying it would aim to undercut its larger rival, setting prices at £1.99 for a single test. Boots may have been the first on the market, tests available the very next day after free access ended, but its higher prices could be cutting them out of the market and they were even said to be “rampant profiteering” by Dan Shears, National Health and Safety Director at GMB union. Major retailers like Morrisons have expressed an intent to enter the market but aren’t release pricing strategies until a later date.

Retailers need to consider profit margins, but there is a much wider consideration surrounding accessibility. For many people, this product is still required by their company to confirm a positive result to be given paid sick leave, crucial in the current climate. And pricing too high could cause serious reputational damage.

The major retailers are very used to price-matching activity, but to achieve the level of cost saving required, retailers are looking to order in large volumes and scope out all possible suppliers. It’s a constant juggle of quick availability of supply with the cost to compete in this now-saturated market.

Lateral flow tests are now in a transition phase, moving away from being a government requirement and distribution management through the NHS to becoming a product that can be picked up as part of a regular food shop. To have any chance of competing in this market, retailers need to move fast.

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