The government has changed its guidance for people in England trying to order free lateral flow tests more than a week earlier than planned in order to discourage the public from competing with at-risk groups for limited supplies.
Under the government’s “living with Covid” plan, the provision of free rapid tests for people in England had been due to end on April 1. However, people trying to order lateral flow tests from the official ordering platform from Monday evening were informed that most people no longer needed to test regularly.
“Most tests are now needed for people at higher risk in England,” read the updated guidance, adding that those “without Covid-19 symptoms no longer need to take rapid lateral flow tests”.
More than 590,000 people tested positive for Covid across the UK in the week to March 22, an increase of 20 per cent on the previous week. Scotland hit a record high of 2,221 Covid patients on March 21.
Some 12,247 Covid patients were admitted to hospital in England in the week to March 19, up 23 per cent on a week earlier. However, nearly three-fifths of Covid-positive patients in English hospitals were not being treated primarily for the disease.
The government’s website message said the recommendations were put in place “to make sure tests are available for people who need them most”, including NHS workers, vulnerable individuals and those visiting high-risk settings.
One employee at the Department of Health said the guidance was changed early “to manage demand” and to prevent a “free-for-all” as people try to snap up kits before widescale free testing is wound down at the end of the month.
Another health official said the general public could still order tests but added that the supply limits were designed to encourage the non-vulnerable to “question whether they need a test” or could “instead allow those in [at-risk] groups to order them as a priority”.
The plan to cut offering free, universal testing in England from the start of April has sparked criticism from experts who warn that it will make the pandemic more difficult to monitor and quicken the spread of the virus.
The UK is currently in the grip of a fresh outbreak of infections, prompted by waning behavioural caution and the spread of the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, which is around 30 per cent more transmissible than the original Omicron.
Healthcare bosses on Tuesday called for clarity on whether NHS England staff would still be able to access free, rapid tests from next month. So far, free testing has only been promised to social care staff.
“In the face of a cost of living crisis, many staff will simply not be able to afford to regularly buy their tests,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of NHS Confederation.
The UK Health Security Agency said: “As set out in the living with Covid plan, from April 1 free tests will only be available for certain groups who are at most risk from the virus. In preparation for this change, the gov.uk home-ordering channel is asking users to only order test kits if you’re eligible for new Covid-19 treatments, work or volunteer in a high-risk setting or support people who are at higher risk from Covid-19.”
Separately, on Wednesday, the House of Commons public accounts committee found that the UK government “was unprepared for a pandemic like Covid-19” and called on ministers to “introduce robust central leadership, accountability and oversight” so departments were better placed to respond to the next crisis.