NHS leaders demand that free Covid tests should continue for the public

Lateral flow tests are currently free. Credit: PA

A group that represents NHS leaders have said that free Covid tests should continue for the public, as speculation mounts that the provision of lateral flow tests could soon be wound down.

More than 300 senior staff in England polled by the NHS Confederation found 79% strongly disagreed or disagreed with the plan to stop free access to Covid-19 tests for the public.

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.Boris Johnson is expected to unveil the details of the plan on Monday.

It has been reported that, in a bid to cut down on costs, free lateral flow tests may be limited to older age groups from March 31, even though people with symptoms are expected to still be advised to take a test.

Asked on Thursday if free Covid tests would be scrapped next week, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said “the protections we’ve enjoyed over the last few months” should be “reviewed”.

Asked if the government is scrapping free lateral flow tests, a minister said the public should “wait and see” what will be announced. Home Office minister Damian Hinds told Sky News the following day that the public should "wait and see" what will be unveiled next week.

“We will wait to see what the government announcement is in full on all we are going to do to live with this virus, as we must, as we live with other viruses, other illnesses,” he said.

In the NHS Confederation survey, 94% of the 307 NHS leaders polled said testing for health staff and other key workers must also continue. At present, NHS staff are asked to test at home twice a week.

The survey also found that more than three-quarters would disagree with any axing of the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive Covid result in favour of it being advisory only.

More than four in five (82%) respondents would be against ending compulsory mask-wearing in the NHS and care homes.

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The NHS Confederation is urging a cautious approach, warning that planned care and access to the NHS could be disrupted if further Covid waves take hold or there are more variants.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “With the success of the vaccine and new Covid treatments, this offers real hope as we learn to live with the virus.

“But the government cannot wave a magic wand and pretend the threat has disappeared entirely.

“So much is uncertain still, including our long-term immunity and the emergence of future strains, which requires a solid testing infrastructure and clear guidance around self-isolation to remain in place."

Professor Dame Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, added: “This poll confirms what many of us have been thinking and saying since the announcement about relaxing the rules early in England was made.

“That is that it all feels very sudden and more driven as much by the current political pressures than by robust scientific guidance."