Scrapping free Covid testing 'ignores' lives of most vulnerable, charities warn

Credit: PA

Covid-19 tests should remain free to continue to protect the clinically extremely vulnerable who face severe risks if they catch the virus, a group of charities has urged.

The government has said it is keeping its provision of free PCR and lateral flow tests under review but reports suggest it could begin to be phased out under the Living With Covid strategy for England.

A coalition of 18 leading health charities warned that abandoning all Covid measures "ignores" the lives of 500,000 at risk immunocompromised people and will turn them into “second class citizens”.

They warned many immunocompromised people do not have the same level of protection from Covid vaccines as others and set out their five requirements the government "must meet" to protect them in the Living With Covid plan, set to be published on Monday.

The charities, including the MS Society, Blood Cancer UK and Kidney Care UK, said the government must improve communication with clinically vulnerable people, giving them “smooth and timely” access to Covid treatments, and improving employment protection and job support.

Their calls come after Sir Keir Starmer said ending free testing is a "mistake" and that it is still important people test if they're symptomatic or are going to see someone's who is particularly vulnerable. He said scrapping free tests "will diminish the likelihood of that". 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid refused to confirm the plans when speaking to the media on Tuesday but said measures to protect the UK from Covid are "not all forever".

Will the end of free Covid testing be announced next week? Sajid Javid responds

Fredi Cavander-Attwood, policy manager at the MS Society, said: “We’re urging the government to stop ignoring the reality of our communities.

“The Prime Minister must directly and immediately address their concerns as we move to this new phase of the pandemic.

“It is not our goal for blanket restrictions to be reinstated – we simply want all 500,000 immunocompromised people, including some with MS, to be protected and supported to manage their risk so they can live normal lives.

“That’s why the government’s plan must include sensible, simple measures, like maintaining free testing, strengthening employment protections for people at risk, making sure they get treatment quickly if they get Covid-19 and having a plan for the use of preventative treatments.

“We must all be able to live alongside Covid-19 – and that can’t happen if the government continues to leave the most vulnerable behind.”

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Helen Rowntree, director of research, services and engagement at Blood Cancer UK, added: “While we understand why the government wants to lift restrictions, this needs to be accompanied by a plan for how they will protect those who are still at risk from the virus.”

Fiona Loud, policy director at Kidney Care UK, added: “Abandoning all measures without preventative treatments, free lateral flow tests, and a duty not to expose immunosuppressed people to Covid unnecessarily risks making us into second class citizens.

“Despite Omicron being a milder illness for the general population, there remains uncertainty about future variants, further impact on higher risk groups; with a record of really poor communication this will make things harder and increase anxiety for people with kidney disease who have already spent two years under Covid-19 stress.”