Free Covid tests and self-isolation rules ‘must not be scrapped’, NHS leaders warn

Free lateral flow tests and self-isolation rules are expected to be scrapped as part of the Prime Minister’s ‘living with Covid’ plan

Free Covid tests for the public and self-isolation rules must not be scrapped, NHS leaders have said.

The warning comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to unveil his ‘living with Covid’ plan on Monday (21 February) detailing how the UK will learn to live with the virus.

Free Covid tests for the public are expected to be scrapped (Photo: Adobe)

Ministers have hinted that free lateral flow tests (LFTs) will be axed as part of the strategy, while the availability of free PCR tests could also be withdrawn as part of the changes.

What have NHS leaders said?

More than 300 senior health staff in England were polled by the NHS Confederation which found that 79% strongly disagreed or disagreed with the plan to stop free access to coronavirus tests for the public.

In the survey, 94% of the 307 NHS leaders polled said testing for health staff and other key workers must also continue.

At the moment, NHS staff are asked to test at home twice a week.

The survey also found that more than 75% would disagree with axing the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive Covid test in favour of it being advisory only.

Furthermore, 82% said they are against ending compulsory face masks in the NHS and care homes.

When asked if free Covid tests would be scrapped next week, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said “the protections we’ve enjoyed over the last few months” should be “reviewed”.

However, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that the threat of Covid has not disappeared and a more cautious approach is needed.

He said: “With the success of the vaccine and new Covid treatments, this offers real hope as we learn to live with the virus.

“But the government cannot wave a magic wand and pretend the threat has disappeared entirely.

“So much is uncertain still, including our long-term immunity and the emergence of future strains, which requires a solid testing infrastructure and clear guidance around self-isolation to remain in place.

“A lot is at stake for the NHS’s recovery ambitions if the government is too gung-ho in its plans for exiting the pandemic, which is why health leaders are calling for a cautious and evidence-led approach. This must not be driven by political expediency.”

Also in the survey, 83% of health leaders said they did not want the weekly Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey to be dropped or scaled back, as has been reported.

Professor Dame Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said: “This poll confirms what many of us have been thinking and saying since the announcement about relaxing the rules early in England was made.

“That is that it all feels very sudden and more driven as much by the current political pressures than by robust scientific guidance.

“We do have to learn to live safely with Covid in the medium term; that does not mean pretending the threat to our health and in some cases life simply no longer exists.

“We should take a more gradual, phased approach to relaxing the rules and carefully watch what happens to the rates of infection – particularly in healthcare settings or other environments where people are particularly at risk.

“We also need the ONS survey of cases to continue so that we have accurate data on which to base future decisions.”

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) also called on the government to provide compelling scientific evidence to back up any plans, warning that ending self-isolation rules after as a positive test would be a “leap in the dark”.

RCN chief executive Pat Cullen said: “Ending the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test is a big leap in the dark.

“Our members, for whom this pandemic is far from over, need to know there is a sound scientific basis for doing it.

“Rather than passing the buck and leaving it up to employers and individuals to decide, ministers must grip the issue and present a clear plan for health and social care staff.”

When will the living with Covid plan be announced?

The Prime Minister is due to present his ‘living with Covid’ strategy next week when Parliament returns from a short recess on Monday 21 February.

Mr Johnson has already stated he will aim within days of his statement to lift the legal requirement for those positive with Covid to self-isolate.

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