Abolishing free Covid tests for those who look after the vulnerable will amount to a “tax on caring” that would cost them more than £500 a year, ministers have been warned.
All remaining domestic Covid regulations that restrict public freedoms are expected to end this week, with Boris Johnson expected to announce a move away from government intervention to “personal responsibility”. However, the scale of free testing to be retained is still being thrashed out within government this weekend amid a dispute between chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid over the costs. There is also growing anxiety among scientists over the future of the main survey used to monitor Covid in Britain.
Current data suggests that nearly 4 million people take regular Covid tests, including those who visit and help vulnerable relatives. That number also includes vulnerable people who work in settings that could put them at greater risk, where they have face-to-face contact with others.
Research based on the average cost of tests internationally, compiled by the Liberal Democrats, suggests that people who take two tests a week face an average bill of £534 a year. It comes after the government’s own scientific advisers have warned that removing free testing will “increase anxiety” and limit the “social participation outside the home” of those who are clinically vulnerable or who live with someone in that position.
“Charging people for the tests they need to safely see vulnerable loved ones is a tax on caring that risks leaving millions of people in lockdown by stealth,” said Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader. “It means vulnerable people will see fewer loved ones and will be able to enjoy less of their lives. It is unfair and unjust. Ministers need to scrap these plans to stop a ‘cost of living with Covid’ crisis. Throughout the pandemic, people have been trying hard to do the right thing and keep others safe. The government should not be making that harder.”
Professor Graham Medley, Sage’s chief Covid modeller, said that it was a “good time to take stock” on what might be needed to help the country in another pandemic or Covid wave. “The main purpose of making tests for infection freely available to the UK population is so that people can make individual decisions about their risks to themselves and others,” he said. “If we deprive people of testing then the population will not be able to make informed choices.”
He also warned against scrapping the Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey that monitors Covid infections: “The Covid-19 Infection Survey (CIS) surveillance is the best way we have of knowing what the virus is doing in the community – if this is removed then we will largely be ‘flying blind’. Governments have to make decisions from multiple perspectives. Testing and the CIS are expensive. But we will need them again at some point in the future and need to be able to restart them quickly.”
Johnson, who is facing pressure from the right of his party over his leadership and the continuation of coronavirus restrictions, said that while Covid would not disappear, “we need to learn to live with this virus and continue to protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms.
“We’ve built up strong protections against this virus over the past two years through the vaccine rollouts, tests, new treatments and the best scientific understanding of what this virus can do,” he said. “Thanks to our successful vaccination programme and the sheer magnitude of people who have come forward to be jabbed, we are now in a position to set out our plan for living with Covid this week.”
The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said ministers should think hard before abandoning the Covid surveillance measures that have been “key parts of our defence”.“One of the distinguishing features of the pandemic has been our inability to predict its course,” he said. “While NHS trust leaders recognise the ongoing cost of [testing and surveillance] regimes, they are clear that the government should err strongly on the side of caution before dismantling or scaling them back.”
Government pressure to dismantle the Covid surveillance system is already taking a toll on local authorities. The national contact tracing service may also be abolished and responsibility for tracing contacts of infected people will lie solely with local authorities. That work was funded by the £400m Contain Outbreak Management Fund, which is due to end next month and the Treasury appears unlikely to renew.
The lack of secure funding means some councils have already let staff go. If no further money becomes available, vital services are under threat including contact tracing, testing for care homes and schools and surge testing for new variants.
Business leaders are also worried that getting rid of testing and Covid self-isolation measures will create more tension and disputes in workplaces. HR directors taking part last week in a focus group run by the CIPD, the association of HR professionals, said they were concerned that if free testing ends, employees who only receive the statutory sick pay of £96.35 a week – among the lowest rates in Europe – will go to work while infectious. Lower-paid workers and those vital for supply chains are often only entitled to the minimum statutory sick pay.
Ben Willmott, CIPD’s head of public policy, said: “There are real costs, hidden costs of not paying statutory sick pay at a reasonable rate. People can’t afford to live on £96 a week so they end up falling out of employment. The onus is likely to shift to employers to decide how best to manage the risk of Covid in the workplace. There is a lot of desire for clarity [from government] and it would be useful to have updated guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care.”