Insurers extend freeze on genetic testing

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People with family histories of serious diseases will be able to buy health and life insurance for at least six more years following the extension of a moratorium on genetic testing.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) said it would extend the existing moratorium on tests until November 2011. The deal between the ABI and the Government, which prevents insurers requiring customers to take genetic tests or disclosing the results of tests they have already had, had been due to expire in November 2006.

The ABI accepted concerns yesterday that an end to the moratorium could result in a "genetic underclass" of people unable to buy crucial insurance or being completely priced out of the insurance market.

The moratorium covers life insurance, health insurance, such as critical illness cover, income protection products and medical insurance. There will be exclusions for large policies. Insurers may use test results where customers are applying for cover above a certain value: lump sums of £500,000 and £300,000 for life and critical illness insurance respectively, and annual benefits of £30,000 or more in the case of income protection.

But this exemption will only apply to genetic tests authorised by the Government's Genetics and Insurance Committee. The watchdog has approved tests for one condition, the hereditary brain disease Huntington's, but tests for several types of cancer, as well as for Alzheimer's, could soon get the go-ahead.

The ABI's director-general, Mary Francis, said: "Because the existing moratorium works well and the number of people taking relevant tests remains low, we felt confident about proposing to the Government it should be extended."

The Human Genetics Commission, which advises the Government on testing, welcomed the extension. Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, who chairs the commission, said: "Our consultations have shown very real public concern about the issue of genetics and insurance: some people are put off taking genetic tests by the fear that they may be seriously disadvantaged."