Published: 12:28, 28 March 2022
| Updated: 14:46, 30 March 2022
Free universal testing for Covid-19 is coming to an end.
Despite a recent rapid rise in cases, free tests will only be available to very specific groups from this Friday while anyone with a cold and not entitled to a test will be asked to stay at home until they feel better.
While as many as one in every 16 people are currently thought to have the virus, the government says it can press ahead with the latest step in its 'Living with Covid' plan because of the ongoing success of the country's vaccination programme. And while it admits that hospitalisations have also risen in recent weeks - over 55% of those in hospital who have tested positive are not there because Covid-19 is their primary diagnosis, say ministers.
Free universal testing has come at a cost to the taxpayer, says the government, with the testing, tracing and isolation budget costing over £15.7 billion in 2021-22.
But with numbers thought to have risen by more than a million in just one week, driven by the new and more contagious BA.2 form of Omicron, not everyone is happy with the impending changes.
An estimated 200,000 children in England are currently said to be off school with coronavirus – which this weekend prompted education secretary Nadhim Zahawi to promise that more details about how the end to free testing would affect schools would be available later this week.
But Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, is among those questioning the plans.
He said: "Covid cases have been spiking again in many schools over the past week or so – in line with the rising numbers nationally. Removing free access to lateral flow tests at this point feels irresponsible.
“It will make tracking and controlling Covid almost impossible. There is a lot of anxiety from school leaders about what could happen once tests are unavailable.”
Who will get free tests after April 1?
Under the plans free symptomatic testing will still be provided for:
* Patients in hospital, where a PCR test is required for their care and to provide access to further treatments to help their recovery and to support work watching for new variants.
* People who are eligible for community Covid-19 treatments because they are at higher risk of getting seriously ill. People in this group will be contacted directly and sent lateral flow tests to keep at home for future use if they have symptoms as well as details on how they can reorder tests if they run out.
* People living or working in some high-risk settings. This could include staff in adult social care services such as homecare organisations and care homes, and residents in care homes and extra care and supported living services, NHS workers and those working and living in hospices and prisons, where infection needs to be identified quickly to minimise outbreaks. People will also be tested before being discharged from hospital into care homes, hospices, homelessness settings or domestic abuse refuges.
What about asymptomatic testing?
Asymptomatic lateral flow testing will continue from April in some high-risk settings where infection can spread rapidly but only while cases of the virus remain high.
This will includes patient-facing staff in the NHS and NHS-commissioned Independent Healthcare Providers, staff working in hospices and adult social care services such as care homes and the small numbers of care home visitors who provide personal care.
Staff in some prisons, in high risk domestic abuse refuges and homelessness settings will also be able to carry out regular testing if required while testing will also be provided for residential SEND, care home staff and residents during an outbreak and for care home residents when they are first admitted.
Visiting the vulnerable
Most visitors to care homes, hospital visitors or those seeing other NHS patients and visitors to prisons won't any longer be required to take a test after April 1.
However as part of efforts to continue keeping the most vulnerable safe, more guidance on what people should do when visiting adult social care settings will be published by Friday, promises the government.
What is the isolation advice from Friday?
From Friday, updated government guidance will advise people with symptoms of a respiratory infection, including Covid-19, and a high temperature or who feel unwell, to stay at home and avoid contact with other people, until they feel well enough to resume normal activities and they no longer have a high temperature.
This includes children and young people who should only return to school, college or childcare when they no longer have a high temperature and feel well.
From April 1 anyone with a positive Covid-19 test result will also be advised to stay at home and avoid contact with people for five days, which is the period when they will be most infectious.
Dame Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: “As we learn to live with Covid, we are focusing our testing provision on those at higher risk of serious outcomes from the virus, while encouraging people to keep following simple steps to help keep themselves and others safe.
“The pandemic is not over and how the virus will develop over time remains uncertain. Covid still poses a real risk to many of us, particularly with case rates and hospitalisations on the rise. That is why it is sensible to wear a mask in enclosed spaces, keep indoor spaces ventilated and stay away from others if you have any symptoms of a respiratory illness, including Covid."
Will there be more vaccines?
Around 600,000 people are being invited for a spring booster this week, with NHS England saying that thousands and thousands of patients had already come forward for an additional coronavirus jab as cases climb.
In total, more than five million people over the age of 75 or who have particular underlying health conditions will be offered an additional jab in the coming weeks and months as part of efforts to protect the most vulnerable from the effects of Covid this year.
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid said: “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.”
Plans to offer the wider public a further jab this autumn have not yet been confirmed.