Is Britain’s Covid test shortage unique, and is Brexit to blame?

A shortage of Covid home test kits is hitting the UK – with supply chain issues being blamed. For weeks, the NHS website has been running out of kits almost as soon as they become available, and pharmacies in the highest demand area have also run dry.

Despite some commentary suggesting otherwise, this shortage does not seem to be unique to the UK – although the picture is complicated and different countries have different issues depending on how they use the tests. The UK policy of emphasising testing and distributing them for free is among a complicated set of reasons for particularly high demand.

One country facing very similar problems to the UK is Ireland, which has a similar system for distributing the lateral flow kits: they are in theory available for free in pharmacies, or ordered from a government website.

But Ireland’s website was actually suspended ahead of Christmas because of stock issues, and pharmacies have reported a drop in deliveries.

Other neighbouring countries such as France and Belgium have also faced a run on tests in recent months, with shortages in some pharmacies hitting the headlines in France at the beginning of December, and Belgium in November.

But while the lateral flow kit shortage is not limited to the UK – and so unlikely to be a result of a reason like Brexit – it is far from universal. Each country has taken a slightly different strategy in tackling Covid, and the way home testing kits are used as part of the wider ecosystem of policies is the a major effect on supply.

In Britain, the tests are required to come out of self-isolation early, and the government’s messaging has heavily emphasised at-home testing as a way of keeping safe – especially ahead of seeing family members at Christmas. It is unsurprising, therefore, that demand is particularly high.

But the approach taken by the UK has not been mirrored in all European countries. Germany and Greece, for example, are two EU member states which previously offered free tests, but have stopped doing so.

The reasoning behind this approach was the same in both countries: health authorities argued that the availability of free, rapid, at-home testing was discouraging people from getting a Covid vaccine. If someone thinks they can stay safe simply by testing, it is argued, they might see it as an alternative to getting their jab.

As a result, both countries began to impose charges in the summer and autumn – with some exemptions for people on low incomes and other categories. Pharmacists in Germany have said this has significantly hit demand for tests. Unsurprisingly, shortages have not really been an issue in either country. While vaccination was the publicly stated reasoning for imposing charges in both countries, the backdrop of an international run on at home kits was inevitably the context in the policy change.

Supply in all countries is also inevitably affected by one-off factors, such as whether a particular contractor has actually delivered tests on time, or whether delivery services are overstretched. In Britain, distribution issues at Royal Mail and Amazon have sometimes been blamed. In this respect, the shortage of tests is similar to the situation in the early days of Covid vaccine distribution, with supplies limited in various countries but not others, often for reasons that would have been difficult to predict. Indeed, concerns about a shortage of tests is nothing new – it been voiced across Europe at different times since March 2020, with the situation waxing and waning in different countries. But a combination of factors means it is particularly acute now.

Douglas Mateo

Douglas holds a position as a content writer at Neptune Pine. His academic qualifications in journalism and home science have offered her a wide base from which to line various topics. He has a proficiency in scripting articles related to the Health industry, including new findings, disease-related, or epidemic-related news. Apart from this, Douglas writes an independent blog and assists people in living healthy life.