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Free Covid tests scrapped from 1 April

Emma Lunn
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Emma Lunn

Brits will be forced to pay to find out if they have Covid from 1 April after the government announced it was ditching free testing as part of its “living with Covid” plan.

The move has been slammed by the British Medical Association (BMA) which warned that axing free tests will create a two-tier system, regarding whether people can afford to pay for a test, and lead to anxiety for many patients with health conditions.

Under the current system, lateral flow tests can be ordered online for free or picked up from chemists by anyone who doesn’t have Covid symptoms but wants to take a test for any reason – for example, before visiting an elderly or immuno-compromised relative.

People with Covid symptoms can also order a free PCR test kit to be sent to their home or be tested at a walk-in or drive-through test site.

But from 1 April free universal testing will be massively scaled back and will instead be focused on the most vulnerable.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: “Living with Covid must not mean ignoring the virus all together – which in many respects the government’s plan in England seems to do. Far from giving people more freedom, today’s announcement is likely to cause more uncertainty and anxiety.

“Crucially, it will create a two-tier system, where those who can afford to pay for testing – and indeed to self-isolate – will do so, while others will be forced to gamble on the health of themselves and others.

“Covid-19 has already disproportionately impacted those on lower incomes, in insecure employment and from ethnic minorities. This move threatens to exacerbate these health inequalities.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson said that from April limited symptomatic testing will be available for a small number of at-risk groups. Free symptomatic testing will also remain available to social care staff.

He said the government was working with retailers to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test. But whether tests will be sold by the government or NHS, or private providers, remains unclear. Covid tests for travel are sold by private companies but the market is unregulated with high and misleading prices commonplace.

The government said that with Omicron now the dominant variant of Covid and less severe, levels of high immunity across the country and a range of strategies in place including vaccines, treatments, and public health knowledge, the value for taxpayers’ money is now less clear regarding testing.

To prevent people from stockpiling free lateral flow tests before 1 April, people can now only order a box of tests on the NHS website every three days instead of every 24 hours as previously.

The government’s “living with Covid” plan also includes cutting statutory sick pay (SSP) so it can only be claimed from day four of being off work, not day one. Unions said the move would mean people attend work with Covid and prolong the pandemic.