Politics

Scrapping free tests and Covid sick pay labelled an ‘act of national self-sabotage’

The PM announced relaxation of remaining Covid rules was met with alarm from scientists, MPs and disability experts.

covid rule change

Some vulnerable groups plus care home workers will still be able to access free lateral flow tests, but the government did not confirm details of the plan. Image: Pippa Fowles/Number 10

Scientists, charities and MPs have hit out at government plans to scrap free Covid testing and pandemic sick pay rules.

This week Boris Johnson announced that from April 1, free testing will end. People who test positive for the virus will no longer be required by law to isolate from this Thursday.

The changes come as a significant blow to clinically vulnerable and older people, experts said.

“Ending self-isolation and phasing out testing means some disabled people will be rolling a dice every time they leave the house or meet others,” said a spokesperson for disability charity Scope.

“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 the disabled people who are most at risk, who have been forgotten by this announcement.”

Around three in five people who died with Covid-19 when the virus hit the UK were disabled, according to Office for National Statistics figures.

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“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’,” the spokesperson added. “It’s living with fear.”

Westminster officials said “a small number of at-risk groups” and some carers would still get free lateral flow tests and suggested some older people could have access too – but said the details have not been confirmed yet.

While the announcement was welcomed by Tory backbenchers who pushed for rules to be relaxed, opposition MPs railed against the decision.

“We can’t turn off Britain’s radar before the war is won,” said Labour leader Keir Starmer.

“‘Ignorance is bliss’ is not a responsible approach to a deadly virus. It actually risks undoing all the hard won progress the British people have achieved over the last two years.”

Medics and scientists expressed concern that the government could be putting politics before public health.

The changes would exacerbate inequalities and amounted to “freedom for the few”, according to Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at St Andrew’s University and member of the Sage subcommittee advising the government on behavioural science.

“This week, a 95-year-old woman catches Covid,” he said, referring to the Queen’s positive lateral flow test reported earlier this week. “Having been tested early, she can be prescribed anti-virals which need to be taken within 3-5 days of infection to be effective.

“Next week, another 95-year-old may catch Covid and not be able to afford tests.

“If you are already having to choose between eating and heating, tests are an impossible luxury.”

Anti-poverty experts and trade unions also criticised changes in support for people on low incomes. Workers will no longer receive lump sums to replace lost wages if they test positive and sick pay will revert to the pre-Covid model, meaning workers won’t be eligible until day four of their illness.

The “nonsensical announcement guarantees workers will attend the workplace with Covid,” said Dan Shears, national health and safety director for union GMB.

“This will prolong the pandemic with more outbreaks. Asking people to exercise responsibility whilst taking away a key workplace provision for them to do that just shows how incompetent this government is.

“The UK’s poverty statutory sick pay rates, among the lowest in Europe, are a public health hazard as workers cannot afford to stay home when they are ill.”

The problem will be “made even worse” this April when soaring inflation means statutory sick pay is cut in real terms, Shears added, calling it an “act of national self-sabotage”.

Speaking to the Commons, Boris Johnson said it was the right time to relax remaining Covid rules to help the nation “get [its] confidence back”.

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