Treasury pushes for free Covid testing to be scrapped despite SAGE warnings

Removing tests could make it harder to take precautions and could disproportionately impact vulnerable people, experts say
Photo: Dunk/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The Treasury is pushing for free coronavirus testing to be scrapped, despite warnings from the government's scientific advisers that doing so could make it harder for people to take precautions against the virus.

A number of anonymous briefings over the weekend suggested that the Treasury wants to end all PCR testing for people with Covid symptoms. The Guardian reported that tests could be scrapped as early as the end of March, with exceptions for clinically extremely vulnerable people and those in hospitals or other high-risk settings.

It is understood a number of scenarios are under discussion in a bid to cut billions of spending on tests, with one proposal being to offer lateral-flow tests to people with symptoms, and another to scrap testing altogether.

A third proposal would see LFTs restricted to people who are over 50 or clinically vulnerable if they have Covid symptoms.

Changes to testing are expected be announced  in a plan called Living safely with Covid on 21 February, which could also spell the end of legal self-isolation requirements for people who have tested positive for the virus.

The briefings came as the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies published the minutes of its latest meeting on the Covid-19 response, which warned that removing access to free testing could make it harder for people to take precautions and could “disproportionately impact” vulnerable people.

Some people may also take the removal of free and accessible testing as a “signal that it is acceptable to attend workplaces or social gatherings while showing Covid-19 symptoms”, the scientists warned.

This is a risk particularly given some of the symptoms of coronavirus can be confused with those of other respiratory illnesses such as flu, they said.

They said “proactive measures” would be needed to address the risk of “presenteeism” – which could include encouraging people to work from home if they are ill, and adequate sick pay.

Scrapping free tests is also likely to “increase anxiety among those who have found testing reassuring after possible exposure, particularly those who are or live with someone who is clinically vulnerable”, the advisers said.

One Whitehall source told the Telegraph mass testing was not considered to be “sustainable or necessary” given the high rates of vaccination in the UK.

However, SAGE warned that future variants of the virus could not only be more severe than Omicron, now the dominant variant, but could evade people’s immunity to other variants.

There is “no reason” to think that future Covid variants will be less severe than Omicron, or even of a similar severity, the committee said. Omicron could be the “exception” in being less severe than the previously-dominant Delta variant, they said.

New variants could emerge quickly and cause new waves of infection “potentially within just several weeks”, they added.

Because of this, they stressed the need for mechanisms – such as test and trace infrastructure and vaccinations – to detect and respond to new variants.

‘Clear and consistent messaging’ needed

The advisers said that the government should accompany any lifting of Covid restrictions with “clear and consistent messaging” about the scientific rationale for its choices and the need to continue taking precautions against the virus.

Last week, Boris Johnson indicated the government could end the requirement for people who test positive with the virus to self isolate.

SAGE noted that increased ambiguity about a requirement to self-isolate will “disproportionately impact vulnerable sections of the population”.

Advisers at the 105th SAGE meeting on coronavirus suggested now may be an “optimal time” for local public health, NHS agencies and the UK Health Security Agency to take over Covid messaging from central government.

“This could improve adherence but is dependent upon consistency across organisations, including central government,” they said.

Those present at the meeting on 10 February included government chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance; chief medical officer Chris Whitty; representatives of NHS England and the UK Health Security Agency; a number of academics; and the chief scientific advisers of several government departments.

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