Health

Rethink plans to scrap free UK Covid tests, say scientists and health officials

Scientists and health experts have urged UK ministers to rethink proposals to scrap free lateral flow tests and cut back PCR testing, ahead of an expected announcement of the government’s “living with Covid” strategy next week.

In a statement to the House of Commons last week, prime minister Boris Johnson said that when parliament returned after recess next week the government would outline proposals for long-term coexistence with the virus. The plans are likely to involve the lifting of the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England, including the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test.

Ministers are also exploring whether to end the provision of free lateral flow tests for healthy adults.

However, Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said there was strong support among NHS leaders for continuing to provide free tests to key workers in particular, but also to the wider public.

“We are not yet at the point where we can afford to stand down free testing and other measures that will help to keep infection levels under control,” she warned.

Officials insist there has been no formal decision on when to end free testing. “Everyone can continue to get free tests and we are continuing to encourage people to use rapid tests when they need them,” a government spokesperson said on Tuesday.

However, one official told the Financial Times that scrapping free lateral flow testing was one of the proposals “being considered” as part of the government’s longer-term Covid strategy.

Testing sites would be likely to close, along with the facility to pick up tests at pharmacies, but lateral flow tests may continue to be delivered to people’s homes on request, another official suggested.

The prospect of removing the provision for free rapid tests was first floated in the government’s autumn and winter Covid-19 response plan, published last November.

A stock of free PCR tests is currently being rolled out to all directors of public health, according to one health insider. Local authority-led contact tracing efforts are also expected to continue in order to tackle outbreaks on the ground.

However, there is a debate over how much national testing and tracing infrastructure needs to be maintained as a precaution against future coronavirus variants or new pathogens.

Two well-placed officials told the FT the government was considering how to maintain what one termed “national surge escalation capacity and capability”.

One of the officials said the agency “needs to keep enough [capacity] in reserve to respond quickly to another variant but no more”.

The health and scientific community greeted the plans to scale back free testing with scepticism and concern.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, suggested the proposals could be motivated by a desire to save money and “align with a political narrative that we have conquered Covid”.

One health official said national advisers, including members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, had been “completely blindsided” by the prime minister’s announcement of a new Covid strategy in the House of Commons last week.

“They had been working on a ‘living with Covid’ plan for the end of March, not the end of February . . . so there’s a lot of work going on to try to cobble something together for next week”, the person said.

Virologists are concerned about what the proposals would mean for tracking the evolution and spread of the virus.

“Any significant reduction in testing will jeopardise lives and compromise our ability to monitor the appearance of new variants,” said Jonathan Stoye, head of a virology lab at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

“It sounds as though the government’s response to Covid is now being driven by politics and economics rather than being ‘driven by the science’,” he added.

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