Free Covid tests are set to be scrapped for everyone in govt announcement next week

15 February 2022, 14:06 | Updated: 16 February 2022, 13:15

Free PCR and lateral flow tests are set to be scrapped next week.
Free PCR and lateral flow tests are set to be scrapped next week. Picture: Alamy/LBC
Rachael Venables

By Rachael Venables

Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

Free PCR and lateral flow tests are set to be scrapped next week as the Government pushes forward with its 'living with Covid strategy', LBC can exclusively reveal.

It means anyone wanting to test for Covid, including the vulnerable, school children, NHS and care workers, would have to pay to access tests.  

This is despite the Department for Health saying only this morning that "testing continues to play an important role in helping people live their day to day lives, keep businesses running and keep young people in school".

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It is part of the Government's plan to lead the country out of Covid and 'lead the world' in getting back to business as normal.

Staff at the UK Health Security Agency, formerly Public Health England, told LBC's Rachael Venables they are worried the plans will damage the UK's ability to spot and track new variants. 

It is believed the Government will choose instead to rely on surveillance schemes, such as from the ONS, to keep an eye on Covid spread in the community.

In a statement, the Department of Health did not deny the claims, but said the testing programme is 'under review'.

"We've previously set out that we’ll keep the provision of free testing under review as the government’s response to COVID-19 changes," the department said.

"No decisions have been made on the provision of free testing. Everyone can continue to get free tests and we are continuing to encourage people to use rapid tests when they need them."

Speaking to LBC on Tuesday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the Government has made "no decision" on changes to the testing offerings at this time.

"But it is being kept under review," Mr Javid told LBC.

"If we are in a better place with Covid there is no need to keep the same offer of testing forever, but testing will continue to play an important part on tackling Covid."

It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, asked yesterday if there was evidence to back up plans to relax all restrictions in England, said it was "clear" Omicron is less dangerous than previous variants.

On a visit to Scotland, he told reporters: "I think the situation with Covid is that numbers remain high, but it's clear that Omicron is much less dangerous than the Delta.

"You can see the numbers going down in hospitals, numbers in ICU have been nothing like what we saw with Delta."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it is important people can test if they have symptoms, or are visiting vulnerable people in care homes.

He said they must remain free or people won't do it.

"Yes to lifting of restrictions… let’s not get rid of free tests," Sir Keir told LBC.

SNP health spokesman, Martyn Day, warned Mr Johnson must not impose changes to "appease Tory backbenchers" and any decisions should be backed by medical advice.

"The UK Government must confirm that it will continue to fund Covid-19 testing for devolved nations - after the confusion caused by Boris Johnson and his Tory ministers," he said.

"Any changes to Covid testing must be guided by expert public health advice through the chief medical officers.

"It would be typically reckless for the Westminster Government to simply impose changes in a bid to appease Tory backbenchers and save the Prime Minister's skin."

Mr Johnson insisted: "We will continue to work with our colleagues in Scotland, but I believe the similarities in our approach vastly outweigh the differences."

Sage, the independent group of advisers who have been counselling the Government throughout the pandemic, has cautioned against removing free testing.

Susan Michie Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, a member of Independent Sage and SAGE told LBC: “It will mean that people will be less able to keep themselves and others safe.

“Most won’t be able to take Lateral Flow Tests to see if they are contagious, only those who can afford to will be able to that.

“Testing and isolation is one of the cornerstones of pandemic management, and we still have high levels of community transmission.

“I think it is a regressive step.”

The group said getting rid of free testing would make it harder for people to take precautions and "may also increase anxiety among those who have found testing reassuring after possible exposure, particularly those who are, or live with, someone who is clinically vulnerable".

"Some people may also take the removal of free and accessible testing as a signal that they should continue to attend workplaces/social gatherings while showing Covid-19 symptoms, as these become conflated with other symptoms of respiratory illness such as influenza," the group added.

Scotland's Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf, said: "Free tests and being required to isolate when testing positive are effective in addressing the virus and should remain for as long as the expert public health advice recommends.

"We are clear that all devolved administrations must be involved in any decisions about any changes to testing.

"If we reach a point that public health advice in any part of the UK is that testing should be maintained while others end it, the UK Government must honour its commitment to ensuring they remain funded.

"This is crucial to ensure all parts of the UK have the capability to address future variants that may emerge, which is why any decisions must be driven by public health advice."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "Scrapping free covid tests means two things: assuming that we are out of the woods and betting our recovery on the chance that Omicron will be the last variant in the pandemic.

"You cannot remove our basic testing infrastructure and hope to avoid potential waves of unknown variants.

"Furthermore, this will likely cause a run on the remaining testing supply as they remain free and create unnecessary concerns, particularly among most vulnerable groups."

A further 41,648 cases of Covid-19 were reported in the UK on Monday, while 35 more people died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the total to 159,605.