The ending of mandatory coronavirus rules in England will cause “huge anxiety” to immunocompromised and disabled people, leaving them feeling “abandoned” and “forgotten”, charities have warned.
The scrapping of free universal testing has been described as “not only reckless but dangerous”, with one charity saying that vulnerable people may be forced back into isolation.
People who test positive for coronavirus will no longer be legally required to isolate from Thursday, and free universal testing will end in April.
Free universal testing will be massively scaled back from April 1 and will instead be focused on the most vulnerable, with the UK Health Security Agency set to determine the details, while a degree of asymptomatic testing will continue in the most risky settings such as in social care.
The Government’s document outlining the plan for “living with Covid” says the Government will continue to communicate to people most vulnerable to Covid-19 about available clinical interventions, including vaccination and treatments, and also testing and public health advice.
Phillip Anderson, head of policy at the MS Society, said the Prime Minister’s plan “fails to give a credible explanation of how over 500,000 immunocompromised people, including some with MS, can live safely alongside the virus”.
He said the announcement of a further booster is welcome, but added that this will be “little comfort to those who are less protected – or not protected at all – by further vaccine doses”.
Mr Anderson said: “Throughout the pandemic, universal free testing has been a crucial tool, helping many vulnerable people to continue living normal lives by providing reassurance that those they are meeting do not have Covid.
“Taking this away is not only reckless but dangerous, and instead of ‘restoring freedom’ may force vulnerable people back into isolation, with no support from the government whatsoever.
“If we are to truly move forward and live with Covid, the government must ensure that friends and family of vulnerable people can get free tests, and they must improve access to antiviral treatments for those at risk.”
Helen Rowntree, director of research, services and engagement for Blood Cancer UK, said: “The Government is lifting restrictions without a plan to protect immunocompromised people, for who the vaccines are proving less effective.
“The Prime Minister may want the country to get its confidence back, but this will cause huge anxiety among immunocompromised people and leave many of them feeling abandoned.
“This will lead to people finding it more difficult to live their daily lives and, sadly, some people dying from Covid.”
James Taylor, director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, said: “Disabled people having to rely on the personal choices of others and having no control over their own freedom and safety isn’t ‘living with Covid’, it’s living with fear.
“The Prime Minister claims that we are moving towards protecting ourselves without losing our liberties, but what he fails to consider are the liberties of disabled people, Many will be feeling forgotten by this announcement.
“Ending self-isolation and phasing out testing will leave some disabled people ‘rolling the dice’ every time they leave the house, go to work or meet friends.
“Even going to the supermarket could be a life-threatening situation.
“Free tests have meant that anyone can access them whenever they need to, allowing people to test before visiting disabled relatives in care homes or carers to test before working with disabled adults and children.
“Putting a cost on Covid tests will create a barrier for some people, especially those struggling with their finances during a cost of living crisis.”
Lynda Thomas, chief executive at Macmillan Cancer Support, said the plan does not go far enough to protect those most vulnerable to the virus, adding that “once again people living with cancer are feeling left behind”.
She said: “It is promising to see that extra Covid-19 jabs will be offered to people who are immunosuppressed, including many people living with cancer.
“But it’s implausible that two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the Government is still making significant changes to guidance and plans which affect half a million people, without consulting with them or the organisations which represent them.
“It is critical that the Government urgently identifies who will be included in the at-risk groups and who will be eligible for free testing to enable them to quickly access the antibody treatments they need. It is unfair and unacceptable to make these people wait.”
Meanwhile, the Government said the approach to managing Covid in NHS and adult social care services “will continue to evolve in the coming months”.
The Living with Covid-19 document says the focus will continue to be on “providing care for those that need it and supporting people who are most vulnerable to Covid-19, including people receiving social care and people receiving treatment in hospitals”.
The Government said it will continue to support the adult social care sector by supporting and encouraging the take-up of vaccines amongst care recipients and staff, with guidance on precautions for visitors and workers in adult social care, and providing access to free PPE to the end of March 2023 or until the UK IPC (infection prevention and control) guidance on PPE usage for Covid is amended or superseded.
The Government said it will publish updated IPC guidance by April 1 which will replace current Covid IPC guidance for care homes, home care and other adult social care services.
“The Government will continue to work with local authorities and care providers to respond to outbreaks in care settings and manage local workforce pressures,” the Living with Covid-19 document says.