eading public health experts and charities have raised concerns over the end of free mass Covid testing in England from April 1.
As part of the Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan, universal ymptomatic and asymptomatic testing will no longer be free for the general public. Limited testing will be available for a small number of at-risk groups, with further detail set to be announced soon.
But amid rising infection levels, the proposal has been met with criticism from a range of groups – with many fearing the move is too soon and could hit vulnerable groups the hardest.
Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the end of free mass testing is “a major mistake”. Scrapping free testing at a time when infection levels are “eye-wateringly high” is a “premature move”, she said, especially when it has been the key to keeping society open and without further restrictions.
Latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show around one in 16 people in private households in England – or 3.5 million people – are likely to have had Covid in the week to March 19. This is up from one in 20, or 2.7 million people, in the previous week.
The Government has insisted lateral flow and PCR tests will remain affordable and accessible for everyone that wants one. Once tests are no longer free, private providers will step in to provide lateral flow tests, with individual tests for sale from a few pounds.
Testing could ‘become a luxury good’
Professor Sridhar is concerned that moving away from free testing could mean it “becomes a luxury good”. Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, she fears the impact this could have on infection levels.
“It’s going to have a disproportionate impact on those who just can’t afford to have it but also who are most at-risk,” she continued. This was echoed by Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage’s subcommittee advising on behavioural science, who said “for a family already struggling to eat and heat their home, the added cost of tests will become impossible”.
The NHS Test and Trace programme cost £15.7 billion in 2021-2022, according to the Government. However, it says with levels of high immunity across the country and strategies in place including vaccines, the value for taxpayers’ money is now less clear.
But Professor Reicher warned that taking away free mass testing to save on cost could actually end up costing “tens of billions of pounds” in the long-run.
“Tests cost, but far less than infections and hospitalisations (let alone deaths),” he said. “The modelling I have seen, suggests that if people don’t self-isolate when infected but continue to circulate and work, the cost would be many – perhaps even tens of billions of pounds.
“So, what Tim Spector said of the ending of self-isolation applies equally well to the ending of free tests: it has no scientific basis, it doesn’t make sense in terms of public health or the economy or even civil liberties. It is a political gesture.”
While ministers insist it is the right time to remove all remaining restrictions in England and learn to live with the virus, others fear it will “add to the misconception that Covid has gone”.
From April 1, people will be able to use their home-test kits but will not be able to report their results on the Government’s website. Dr Gareth Nye, of the University of Chester, said this would compound the already “limited knowledge about the prevalent of the disease within our communities, putting people at risk yet again.”
Charities express fears over ‘tax for caring’
Charities have also criticised the changes to testing, with chief executive of Sense, Richard Kramer, saying it “will increase fear and anxiety amongst disabled people”. With families and carers depending on tests to safely see vulnerable loved ones, he warned introducing charges is “effectively taxing them for caring”.
Research from the charity found that six in 10 disabled people are fearful of going outside because of the scrapping of Covid restrictions, while seven in 10 say they are being left behind, with campaigners fearing that extra costs for testing will only exacerbate the situation.
And with free testing for care home visitors also being axed, the Alzheimer Society said they were already hearing from families who are going to struggle to pay in order to safely visit their loved ones.
The charity’s head of Public Affairs and Campaigns, James White, is calling on the Government to scrap this “cruel tax on care”. He continued: “With infection rates rising almost 50 per cent in the past week, it is essential that the Government provide free lateral flow tests for all care home visitors.”