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Covid: Self-isolation to end Thursday and free tests scrapped from 1 April

Public will have to pay for tests from spring, says PM

Adam Forrest,Andrew Woodcock
Monday 21 February 2022 16:42 GMT
Boris Johnson says free tests scrapped from 1 April

The legal requirement to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid and £500 quarantine support payments will end in England on Thursday, Boris Johnson has announced.

The prime minister also confirmed that free Covid testing for the public will be scrapped in England from 1 April, as he set out his “living with Covid” plan in the Commons.

Mr Johnson said testing had become “much less valuable” in restricting the spread of Covid, and said the £2bn-a-month cost of the system meant the government had to “scale back” what it could offer.

The prime minister also told MPs the success of the UK’s vaccination programme meant the government could “lift our restrictions earlier than comparable countries”.

He said: “It’s time we got our confidence back – we can rely on that sense of responsibility to one another. Let us learn to live with this virus, and continue protecting ourselves and others, without restricting freedoms.”

Routine contact tracing will end on Thursday, as will the legal obligation for individuals to tell employers about their requirement to isolate.

The government is also stripping back sick pay from next month. From 24 March, the £96.35 a-week Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will go back to being available on the fourth day of any illness, rather than on day one.

Read more: Boris Johnson ends isolation for positive cases - follow LIVE

Mr Johnson also said that from 1 April the use of voluntarily Covid status certification will no longer be recommended – though the NHS app “will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel”.

Sir Keir Starmer condemned the PM’s “half-baked announcement” – criticising the end of self-isolation support payments and weakening sick pay, and questioning the decision to scale back free testing. “We can’t turn off Britain’s radar before the war is won.”

Mr Johnson said the evidence for ending all curbs in England was “amply there in the scientific evidence”, before claiming that Sir Keir had shown a “ferocious grip of the wrong end of the stick”.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said it would be “premature and reckless” to wind back the programme, while Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said it would be “inexcusable negligence given ongoing risks”.

The cabinet was due to sign off the prime minister’s plan, which includes a significant reduction in the NHS Test and Trace system, on Monday morning.

But the green lighting was pushed back – with the unexpected delay thought to centre on a row with health secretary Sajid Javid and chancellor Rishi Sunak over how to fund the continuation of some free testing.

An ally of Mr Sunak insisted the delay was “no one’s fault” but it was “just cabinet-level discussions as you’d expect”.

Free testing will be massively scaled back from 1 April, 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 settings such as in social care.

Downing Street sources said that no price was being set for a box of lateral flow tests after free supplies end on 1 April, and it will be down to the market to decide how much to charge.

However ministers expect the price to settle at a “low single figure” for each individual test, suggesting a price of £15-30 for a pack of seven.

Free tests will still be made available to some of the most vulnerable groups – likely to include the over-80s and those with immuno-suppressing conditions – in response to symptoms.

And there will be asymptomatic testing free of charge for care home residents. However, NHS staff and patients and care system workers will receive free tests only if they develop symptoms of Covid-19 or if there is an outbreak which requires asymptomatic testing to be conducted.

Mr Johnson said: “We will continue to provide free symptomatic tests to the oldest age groups and those most vulnerable to Covid ... we’re working with retailers to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test.”

Senior Tory backbencher Mark Harper welcome the PM’s announcement and invited him to join the group of lockdown sceptics, joking: “I will take the prime minister’s statement .. as his application to join the Covid recovery group. He’s very welcome indeed. I only wish it had been sooner.”

Mr Javid lost his battle with the chancellor for additional funding to cover future testing programmes, which will be paid for entirely from existing Department of Health budgets. However, it is not expected that money will be taken from the budget for clearing the NHS treatment backlog.

A new 72-hour delay between ordering boxes of tests has been introduced to prevent individuals from trying to build up stockpiles at home before the 1 April deadline and to stop a blackmarket developing in lateral flow kits.

The government’s scientific advisers have made clear that the coronavirus pandemic is not yet over, and the disease has not yet settled into a predictable endemic pattern.

Ministers were told that there could be significant future mutations and that new variants could be more severe and more transmissible than the currently dominant Omicron strain.

The Sage scientific advisory committee, which met last week, made clear that the UK would need a strong domestic surveillance capacity to maintain public health protection.

The Office for National Statistics will continue its infection survey, alongside the Vivaldi study in care homes and the Siren study into reinfections, to monitor the development of new variants.

Meanwhile, UK Health Security Agency will maintain a level of PCR lab infrastructure and a stockpile of lateral flow tests to be able to respond in the case of a new variant of concern or a spike in cases.

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