Free COVID tests will still be available to certain groups after universal testing ends on Friday – but it could still be rolled out again if a new variant of concern emerges, the government has announced.
As the pandemic enters a new phase, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said COVID will start to be treated like other respiratory infections.
Free lateral flow tests for people without symptoms are set to end on Friday but will remain for certain groups, Mr Javid has announced.
Those groups who will continue to have access to asymptomatic lateral flow testing are:
• Patient-facing staff in the NHS and NHS-commissioned independent healthcare providers
• Staff in hospices and adult social care services such as care homes and home care
• A small number of care home visitors who provide personal care
• Staff in some prisons and places of detention
• Staff in high-risk domestic abuse refuges and homelessness settings.
These groups will be provided asymptomatic lateral flow testing during an outbreak:
• Residential special needs and disability schools
• Care home staff and residents (also upon admission)
The plans announced have also revealed that free testing will continue for some people with COVID symptoms – these include:
• Certain patients in hospital where a PCR test is required for their care and to provide access to treatments and to support ongoing clinical surveillance for new variants
• People who are eligible for community COVID treatments as they are at higher risk of getting seriously ill – these people will be contacted directly and sent lateral flow tests at home to use if they have symptoms
• People will be tested before being discharged from hospital into care homes, hospices, homelessness settings and domestic abuse refuges
People with symptoms should ‘try’ to stay at home
Guidance from Friday says people with symptoms of COVID or other respiratory infections should “try” to stay home and “avoid contact with other people” until they feel better and have no high temperature. This includes schoolchildren.
Those who test positive for COVID should try to stay home for five days.
Mr Javid said: “Thanks to our plan to tackle COVID, we are leading the way in learning to live with the virus.
“We have made enormous progress but will keep the ability to respond to future threats, including potential variants.
“Vaccines remain our best defence and we are now offering spring boosters to the elderly, care home residents and the most vulnerable – please come forward to protect yourself, your family, and your community.”
NHS staff feared having to pay £50 a month for tests
The change comes after ministers were accused of leaving NHS staff in the dark as to whether or not they would need to pay for their own coronavirus tests, like the majority of the population will have to from Friday.
The NHS Confederation said that workers may be forced to fork out around £50 a month for tests if they have to pay themselves.
Currently, health workers are still required to test twice-weekly for the virus.
The end of free universal tests comes despite infections and hospital admissions rising in recent weeks, but the government said more than 55% of those in hospital that have tested positive have not been admitted with COVID-19 as their primary diagnosis.
The government said free universal testing, tracing, and isolation funding has come “at a significant cost to the taxpayer”, costing more than £15.7bn between 2021 and 2022.
It added that the vaccination programme and access to antivirals, alongside natural immunity and increased scientific and public understanding about how to manage risk, means the population now has much stronger protection against COVID “than at any other point in the pandemic”.
People scrambling to order the last available lateral flow tests are being discouraged from ordering packs when they try to access them online.