‘Universal free provision will end’ in England and ‘individuals and businesses will bear the cost’, government says
Charges will be introduced for Covid lateral flow tests within “months” in England, triggering criticism of the “reckless” move.
“Universal free provision will end” and “individuals and businesses using the tests will bear the cost”, the government says – despite acknowledging the rapid tests identify a quarter of reported infections.
No date has been set for the switch, but the winter plan unveiled by Sajid Javid, the health secretary, says the tests will only remain free for “the coming months”.
Public health chiefs and school leaders have united in criticising the move, which Mr Javid failed to announce in his statement to Parliament last Tuesday.
Prof Kate Ardern, the lead director of public health in Greater Manchester, pointed out that tests for other diseases, such as tuberculosis, are free on the NHS.
“Anything that potentially deters people from continuing to do testing – and a charge does do that – then that is potentially a little bit worrying,” she told The Guardian.
Professor Dominic Harrison, the director of public health in the Covid hotspot of Blackburn-with-Darwen, said it was “critical” that testing remained free for those most at risk.
“Anything that puts a barrier up to community level testing in high-risk communities, which we know are often the most low-income communities, will increase the risk of further transmission and of course hospitalisation and mortality,” he said.
And Paul Whiteman, of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The best way to minimise disruption to children’s education is to keep the number of Covid cases in school as low as possible. Testing is critical to this.”
The Independent reported that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was considering charges in July, but it stepped back after criticism.
But, buried in the winter strategy – which unveiled Boris Johnson’s ‘Plan B’ if the Covid pandemic surges in the weeks to come – is confirmation that fees will be introduced.
The plan states: “Rapid asymptomatic testing is an important tool to help reduce the spread of the virus, while supporting people to manage their own risk and the risks to others.
“The government will therefore continue to provide the public with access to free lateral flow tests in the coming months.”
It then adds: “At a later stage, as the government’s response to the virus changes, universal free provision of LFDs [lateral flow devices] will end, and individuals and businesses using the tests will bear the cost.
“The government will engage widely on the form of this model as it is developed, recognising that rapid testing could continue to have an important, ongoing role to play in future.”
The move comes despite the high-profile campaign, last spring, urging everybody to test themselves twice a week, under the headline ‘Next Step Safely’.
Lateral flow tests were made available from workplaces and places in the community “to encourage a new testing habit” for anyone without Covid symptoms.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “LFDs are a crucial measure to stop the spread of Covid-19 and that’s precisely why we have confirmed that we are extending the free provision of these tests.”