The Government’s “living with Covid strategy” has reached a new milestone, with the end of universal free testing for the virus. Of course, it never was actually “free” but instead paid for at great expense by the taxpayer. But from today, most members of the public – with the exception of some, more vulnerable groups – who wish to take lateral flow tests will have to buy them themselves.
Predictably, some scientists have denounced the move as dangerous, particularly given that Covid prevalence is still high among the population. However, while there was an argument for mass testing earlier in the pandemic, the arrival of the vaccines changed the calculus. It is the jabs that have proved most effective at dramatically limiting the numbers of deaths and hospitalisations.
The question must be why this vastly expensive testing architecture – which, arguably, also resulted in levels of anxiety about the virus that were unwarranted – was kept in place for so long. Indeed, it seems likely that it will join a litany of policies and schemes that history will judge did comparatively little to save lives, but which came at great cost to the public.
Many of them were imposed on children – for example, the demand that they test regularly for a virus that was vanishingly unlikely to make them unwell. Others defied all logic: including the requirement that punters buy a “substantial meal” if they wanted to have a drink in a pub, or the period when many outdoor activities were banned. The various mask mandates were also of dubious value.
It is not just in retrospect that these measures look questionable. Many of them were criticised at the time of their introduction as disproportionate or poorly targeted, and yet the Government went ahead with them anyway and often persisted with them for far longer than might have been necessary.
It is important that these issues are addressed in the coming Covid inquiry, because at some point in the future the country will face another health crisis and policymakers will again have to make decisions in an environment of considerable uncertainty. During the coronavirus pandemic, the Government adopted a version of the precautionary principle that resulted in too little attention being paid to the negative consequences of its measures. That can never be allowed to happen again.