'Woeful' decision to end free Covid testing puts poorest at greatest risk, Rachael Maskell warns

The poorest will be put at greatest risk from the Government’s “woeful” decision to scrap free Covid testing later from tomorrow, York MP Rachael Maskell has warned.

The Government has said continuing free testing will cost billions but Ms Maskell, who has urged the Government to follow Wales in introducing a three-month extension for free lateral flow tests, said the costs for the healthcare system will be much higher if undetected cases contribute to higher hospitalisations.

There are currently more than 19,000 people in hospital with Covid in the UK.

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Ms Maskell said: “The Government is trying to move on from Covid but the reality we are seeing in local communities, in our hospitals and tragically in the mortality rates is telling a very different story. You can’t deny a pandemic but that is what they are doing.”

It will no longer be possible for the vast majority of people to get free Covid tests in England from this FridayIt will no longer be possible for the vast majority of people to get free Covid tests in England from this Friday
It will no longer be possible for the vast majority of people to get free Covid tests in England from this Friday

Free universal testing is to end in England tomorrow, with pharmacies charging around £2 per individual test.

Free tests will still be available to some NHS, social care and hospice staff without symptoms of Covid when rates of the virus are high.

But routine tests for care home and hospice residents will no longer continue and will only be provided in the event of an outbreak or a resident being admitted.

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The Department of Health and Social Care said testing has come at a “significant cost” to the taxpayer, with the testing, tracing and isolation budget costing more than £15.7 billion in 2021/22.

But it said it will retain the ability to ramp up testing if needed, including keeping a stockpile of lateral flow tests.

But Ms Maskell, who has been calling for England to follow the approach of Wales of retaining free lateral flow tests until the end of June, said making the decision on financial grounds was shortsighted.

“Hospitalisations cost more and that is what we are trying to prevent,” she said.

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“It costs more not just financially but also in terms of people’s lives. We must do everything we can to protect people through the pandemic.

“They are saying people can buy test kits but we have a cost-of-living crisis.

“We are at a very serious stage of the pandemic and the Government is walking away from the public. To have to pay for a public health measure which is all about community protection is a new departure for the Government and it gives me grave concern about the way they view the health system.

“The poorest will be most at risk and it will add to health inequalities.”

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After Health Minister Maggie Throup rejected her plea in Parliament on Monday night to extend free testing on the grounds that the country was now on the “front foot” against the virus, Ms Maskell said she asked her to take a close look at York’s current Covid figures.

She pointed out in Parliament that more than 260 people in the city are in hospital with Covid, with five recent deaths reported.

“I have talked to senior health leaders and they are as equally concerned and frustrated.”

BMA raises concerns

The British Medical Association has welcomed free testing continuing for healthcare workers - but said they are concerned about universal testing ending.

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BMA Chair of Council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the move was a false economy.

“The Government think that by ending free testing they will save money.

“However, at a time when hospitalisation rates are increasing daily, with over 17,000 people in hospital today compared to 11,000 a month ago, not providing free testing for all healthcare staff – and limiting access to free testing across society – will increase the spread of infection and add further stress to the NHS.”

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