Government to 'scale-back free Covid tests instead of scrapping them'

Credit: PA

Boris Johnson will scale-back but not scrap all free Covid tests next week – according to Whitehall officials I speak to.

They say he met with the so-called “quad” on Friday - the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, health secretary, Sajid Javid, and chief of staff, Steve Barclay to discuss next week’s “living safely with Covid” plan.

Johnson has said previously that he wants to remove all remaining restrictions by the end of the month – including the need to self-isolate.

Insiders describe the policy as the start of a slow shift towards a world in which Covid is treated like flu. They say that means acknowledging that the disease is lethal for some - especially the vulnerable - and running major vaccine programmes, but not shutting everyone down.

But one contentious issue has been the question of free tests. The NHS confederation said on Friday that we shouldn’t scrap them all following a survey of 300 senior staff in the health service.

It’s chief executive, Matthew Taylor, told ITV News that he wanted the government to move “carefully”, particularly to limit people who do not know they have Covid entering hospitals with vulnerable patients.

There have been reports about Cabinet tensions over this issue as Sunak aims to dramatically cut the Covid budget, including removing free PCR tests for all but the 1.3 million most vulnerable – as well as in hospitals. But there has been a debate over whether any lateral flow tests will remain free.

Sources have denied a split and said that an agreed position was reached at yesterday's meeting. They said ministers believed it was too costly to keep free mass testing but that some element of free testing will remain.

Discussions are still taking place on how to set that limit.

There have also been warnings from scientists advising government on a modelling sub-committee known as SPI-M-O. It put out a document that referred to research from Warwick university suggesting measures such as testing, self-isolation, mask wearing, and increased home working had cut transmission by 20-45%.

The study warns that a sudden change to end testing and isolation at once could lead to a “return to rapid epidemic growth”.

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