Sir Keir Starmer has said the government’s plan to end free Covid tests is a “mistake” and will make the pandemic worse, as he opened a new policy divide between Labour and ministers over the pandemic.
The Opposition leader backed calls from experts for lateral flow and PCR tests to remain free in Britain, as Boris Johnson prepares to set out the government’s “learning to live with Covid” strategy next week.
The Telegraph understands that Mr Johnson is likely to announce that free tests will end eventually, but they could continue until the spring, with officials expecting coronavirus cases to decline as the weather improves.
NHS staff, care home workers and teachers could be exempt from the crackdown, despite concerns from the Treasury about the ongoing cost of the policy.
Mandatory self-isolation is likely to end immediately, with the public offered guidance on what to do if they contract the virus but not legally obligated to stay at home.
Essential workers including health staff and teachers could retain access to free tests, with ministers prioritising access for those who need them most, under one version of the plans.
High cost to the taxpayer
Downing Street is expected to make a final decision on the timescale for scrapping tests in the coming days, but a source said free tests would need to be scrapped eventually due to the high cost to the taxpayer.
But Sir Keir said on Wednesday that charging for the tests did not make sense for public health or the economy.
“I think ending free testing is a mistake,” he told The Guardian.
“Covid isn’t going away. Obviously all of us want restrictions to end but it’s still important that people test if they have symptoms or if they’re going to see someone vulnerable.
“If you take away free tests, that will diminish the likelihood of that and make it worse in the long run.
“It’s not good to get rid of free tests on health grounds, nor is it economically the right thing to do.”
The Government has refused to reveal how much has been spent on tests, arguing that the figure is “commercially sensitive”, while £37 billion has been spent on the whole Test and Trace service over two years.
A Whitehall source said that Britain will retain the ability to “scale up” its testing capability if there is a resurgence of the virus in the autumn or winter months, and free test distribution could be reintroduced if necessary.
Employers could be asked to pay for tests
Industry bosses are concerned that companies may be required to foot the bill for tests if they ask their employees to swab before coming into work.
Experts have suggested that scrapping free PCR tests will make it more difficult for health officials to track the impact of the virus, and to identify any new variants.
The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) said on Wednesday that asking the public to pay for tests would have a “detrimental impact” on the number taken, especially among disadvantaged groups.
A government spokesperson said: “We’ve previously set out that we’ll keep the provision of free testing under review as the government’s response to Covid-19 changes.
“No decisions have been made on the provision of free testing. Everyone can continue to get free tests and we are continuing to encourage people to use rapid tests when they need them.”