Free Covid tests END for millions as England ushers in next stage

Free Covid tests END for millions as England ushers in next stage of post-pandemic era

  • Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it is right to ‘focus resources’ away from swabs
  • Most people will now need to purchase them in shops for £2 per Covid test
  • England has ended universal testing under plans to ‘live with’ the virus 

Free Covid tests officially ended for millions of people today as England ushered in the next stage of the post-pandemic era.

The Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it was now right to ‘focus resources’ on those people who still most needed testing, including hospital patients and those at a high risk of severe Covid.

Most people will now need to shop on the high street for paid-for tests — available for £2 per swab.

Mr Javid said: ‘We are one of the most open and free countries in the world now, and that’s because of decisions that we’ve taken as a country… and it is right also as we learn to live with Covid that we withdraw free testing – universally… if it’s not needed any more, but we focus those resources on the people that need it most. And that’s what we’re doing.’

A message posted on the Government website today reads that free Covid tests are now only available for certain groups. 

England ended its universal testing offer under plans to ‘live with’ the virus and amid pressure from the Treasury over the £2billion bill in January at the height of the Omicron wave.

While free testing ends in England, it will continue during April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.

Ministers in England argue that even though infection levels have been rising, vaccines and antivirals are working to protect the vast majority of people.

Pictured above are NHS Test and Trace workers clearing away a drive through Covid testing site in Milton, Cambridge, yesterday. The free testing offer in England ended today

Pictured above is Covid testing workers clearing away a swabbing site in Milton, Cambridge, yesterday

For those trying to order a Covid test, the above message now appears on the Government website. The free testing offer ended yesterday

High street pharmacists today continued their war of prices ahead of free lateral tests being scrapped from next week. Graphic shows: Different price options at Boots, Superdrug and LloydsPharmacy

Carers UK and the Alzheimer’s Society are among those who have criticised the move, with the latter saying it ‘risks gambling’ with the lives of people living with dementia in care homes.

The Alzheimer’s Society has been campaigning to keep lateral flow tests free for all people visiting loved ones in care settings.

James White, head of public affairs and campaigns at the charity, said: ‘With the end of Covid rules, people may well assume infections are dwindling.

Free lateral flow tests will be scrapped for everyone except NHS workers, care home staff and vulnerable patients from Friday in England.

It will only continue in settings where infection can spread rapidly while prevalence is high. 

FREE SYMPTOMATIC TESTING WILL STILL BE GIVEN TO:   

  • Patients in hospital, where a PCR test is required for their care and to provide access to treatments and to support ongoing clinical surveillance for new variants;
  • People who are eligible for community Covid treatments because they are at higher risk of getting seriously ill;
  • People living or working in some high-risk settings. For example, staff in adult social care services such as homecare organisations and care homes.

‘But the reality is that cases have been soaring which means scrapping all isolation rules and ending free tests is a dangerous gamble.

‘It poses an unnecessary risk for people living with dementia being exposed to infected people not isolating in the community, but also from untested people visiting care homes whilst infected.

‘It’s a relief to see a small number of those giving close personal care receive free tests for care home visits, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough to allow everyone to visit safely and provide families with the reassurance needed.’

He said the Alzheimer’s Society’s helpline has heard from families concerned about paying for tests to visit loved ones when the cost of living is rising.

Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, said: ‘Having borne the brunt of the pandemic and gone to extraordinary lengths to protect their relatives, unpaid carers are now being asked to pay in order to protect those they care for who are at risk of Covid.’ 

The most recent data shows there were 15,632 people in hospital in England with Covid as of Wednesday, up 18 per cent week-on-week and the highest since January 19.

Asked on Thursday if it was the right time to end free Covid testing, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Dame Jenny Harries said the UK must be prepared for the pandemic to ‘remain unpredictable’.

She said: ‘The pandemic takes its own course and it will remain unpredictable to a large extent for the next say 18 months to two years, I think is general consensus, and we will have to be continuously alert to monitor those rates and to respond appropriately to any new variants.

‘But as with other respiratory viruses such as flu… at some point we have to come to terms with that.’

People should continue to take precautions, she said, adding that she will continue to wear a mask in shops and on public transport.

The Government has set out the groups who are still eligible for free testing when they have symptoms of the virus.

These include some hospital patients, some people at high risk of severe Covid, and some who live or work in ‘high-risk settings’ including some NHS and social care units or prisons.

Those who are positive, or have symptoms, are being urged to stay at home. 

Can I still get free tests? Why is swabbing over? Do I need to keep testing?

Free Covid tests for everyone in England has ended, but what should I do if I have Covid? Am I one of the people still eligible to get free tests? 

Below, your questions are answered: 

– Can I still get free tests?

The majority of people in England will no longer be eligible for free Covid tests from April 1.

The Government has set out the groups who will still be eligible for free testing when they have symptoms of the virus, these include some hospital patients, some people at high risk of severe Covid and some who live or work in ‘high risk settings’ including some NHS and social care settings or prisons.

While there are still high rates of the virus in the community, health and social care staff will still be able to get access to free tests, even when they don’t have symptoms.

– What about people who live in care homes and hospices?

Routine tests for care home and hospice residents will no longer continue and will only be provided in the event of an outbreak or a resident being admitted.

– Why has the Government decided to stop free tests?

The short answer: Money.

The Department of Health and Social Care said testing has come at a ‘significant cost’ to the taxpayer, with the testing, tracing and isolation budget costing more than £15.7 billion in 2021/22.

It said that testing can also be reduced thanks to the protection afforded to the population through vaccination and the use of antiviral medication.

– So I do not need to keep testing?

Ministers have said that most people no longer need to take lateral flow tests. This includes visitors to hospitals and care homes.

– But if I want to keep testing I can still buy them?

Sure, they start at around £2 a test, if you buy a pack.

– What do I do if I get Covid?

People who have a positive Covid-19 test in England will be advised to try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days, which is when they are most infectious.

Those who are positive, or have symptoms, and need to leave home will be urged to wear masks, avoid crowded places and stay away from people with weakened immune systems.

– What about if I feel generally unwell and I’m not sure if it’s Covid?

The new advice is that people should try and stay at home until they feel better.

Those who have a symptoms of a respiratory illness such as a high temperature or ‘who feel unwell’ are being encouraged to stay home until they feel well enough to resume normal activities or when their temperature has subsided, the Department said on Tuesday.

– What about children going to school?

The Government is going to advise that children and young people who are unwell and have a high temperature should ‘stay at home and avoid contact with other people, where they can’ and that ‘they can go back to school, college or childcare when they no longer have a high temperature, and they are well enough to attend’.

– But don’t we need tests to monitor new variants?

Yes, but probably not at the current level of testing.

The Office for National Statistics’ flagship Covid Infection Survey is to continue for the next year — albeit at a reduced level. And other infection monitoring studies will also continue.

– What if there is a sudden wave of a new variant that is more deadly?

Ministers have reserved the right to stand up testing capacity again in the event of a new variant, this includes keeping a stockpile of lateral flow tests.

– What risks does reducing testing carry?

The Government’s chief scientific adviser was asked this question on Wednesday. Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs that a reduction in testing will lead to a ‘decrease in precautionary behaviours’ which could drive up transmission of the virus.

He told the Science and Technology Committee of MPs: ‘Testing in effect does three things: it is very important for surveillance; it enables precautionary behaviour and it’s useful to protect those who are most vulnerable.’

– Are people happy about it?

Some charities representing people at risk of Covid have raised concerns about taking away frequent testing for vulnerable people without symptoms. They said that testing has become a way which has enabled some people to return to their normal lives, despite being concerned abut the virus.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition calling on the Government to reinstate free tests. 

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