Ree coronavirus testing has ended for millions of people in England, with the Health Secretary insisting people must ‘learn to live with Covid’.
Sajid Javid said it was right to “focus resources” on those who still needed testing the most, including some hospitalized patients and those at high risk of severe Covid.
Most people will now have to shop on the high street for paid testing if they choose.
Mr Javid said: “We are one of the most open and free countries in the world right now, and that is because of the decisions we have made as a country… and it is also right that we learn to live with Covid that we are withdrawing free tests – universally… if they are no longer needed, but we are focusing these resources on the people who need them the most. And that’s what we do.
Carers UK and the Alzheimer’s Society are among those who have criticized the move, with the latter saying it “risks messing” with the lives of people with dementia in care homes.
The Alzheimer Society has campaigned to keep lateral flow tests free for all people visiting loved ones in care facilities.
James White, the charity’s public affairs and campaigns manager, said: ‘With the end of the Covid rules, people may well assume that infections are going down.
“But the reality is that cases have skyrocketed, which means scrapping all isolation rules and ending free testing is a dangerous bet.
“It poses an unnecessary risk for people with dementia to be exposed to infected people who are not isolating in the community, but also to untested people visiting care homes while infected.
“It’s a relief to see a small number of those providing close personal care receiving free tests for home visits, but it doesn’t go far enough to allow everyone to safely visit and reassure families.
He said the Alzheimer’s Society helpline has heard from families worrying about paying for tests to visit loved ones when the cost of living rises.
Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, said: “Having borne the brunt of the pandemic and made extraordinary efforts to protect their loved ones, unpaid carers are now being asked to pay to protect those they care for and who risk of Covid.”
As the free tests end in England, they will continue in April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.
England’s ministers argue that even though infection levels have risen, vaccines and antivirals are working to protect the vast majority of people.
The latest data shows there were 15,632 people in hospital in England with Covid-19 on Wednesday, up 18% week-on-week and the highest since January 19.
When asked on Thursday if now was the right time to end free Covid testing, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Dame Jenny Harries said the UK United had to be prepared for the pandemic to “remain unpredictable”.
She said: “The pandemic is running its own course and it will remain unpredictable to a large degree over the next 18 months to two years, I think that’s a general consensus, and we’ll have to be constantly vigilant to monitor those rates and to respond appropriately to any new variant.
“But as with other respiratory viruses like the flu…at some point we have to accept 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 defined which groups are still eligible for free testing when they show 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.
People with HIV or showing symptoms are asked to stay at home.
It comes as a YouGov poll found 45% of people think the UK’s Covid-19 situation is getting worse, up from 11% in February, and 42% say they are still wearing a face mask – the lowest level since July 2020 and against 53% in February.
A quarter (26%) last had a lateral flow test more than a month ago, while one in eight (13%) have never had one.