Free PCR And Lateral Flow Tests May Be Scrapped. Scientists Are Worried

A reduction in free Covid testing will "jeopardise lives", says leading scientist.
PCR tests might soon come with a price tag.
Corinna Kern via Getty Images
PCR tests might soon come with a price tag.

In an attempt to normalise “living with Covid”, government ministers are poised to scrap many sanctions placed in the pandemic, including isolation and the need to test.

From as early as the end of February, isolation requirements for those who test positive for coronavirus are set to end. And from July onwards, the free lateral flow tests that are currently available to the public could be scrapped, too.

In their place, a new online ordering system for PCR tests could be introduced, with pricing for the public yet to be set. This end to free PCR testing is part of a bid to reduce the cost of the testing programme by chancellor Rishi Sunak.

If these plans go ahead, some people will still be eligible for free testing. These include those who are clinically extremely vulnerable, or people who develop Covid symptoms in hospital or other high-risk settings.

But test centres that offer free tests will be closed, and home deliveries of testing packs halted under these plans.

PCR test usage has already been reduced since government ministers declared only a positive lateral flow is needed to confirm a coronavirus reading. But these new proposals are not going down well with some scientists who reckon it’s too early to remove these public testing programmes.

Dr Jonathan Stoye, from the Francis Crick Institute, said: “It sounds as though the government’s response to Covid is now being driven by politics and economics rather than being ‘driven by the science’.”

He adds: “Even though the pandemic may appear to be ending, it has not yet ended. There are no guarantees that new, more pathogenic variants will not emerge. Despite the successes of vaccination, many people are still at risk. Any significant reduction in testing will jeopardise lives and compromise our ability to monitor the appearance of new variants.”

Professor Lawrence Young, virologist and professor at Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, echoed his sentiments.

“Living with Covid doesn’t mean ignoring the virus and letting our guard down. We still have high levels of infection in the UK and the pandemic continues to rage across the globe,” he tells HuffPost UK – adding that accessible testing is key to identifying new variants.

“We need to find a new normal where we maximise our freedoms while recognising that Covid will always be present,” he says. “As long as the virus continues to spread and replicate, particularly in populations who are under-vaccinated, it will throw up new variants and these will remain a continual threat even to those countries with high rates of vaccination.”

“You can’t control virus infection if you don’t know where the virus is spreading.”

- Professor Lawrence Young

Maintaining a PCR testing programme is particularly “critical” as we start to see a decline in the original Omicron variant, but a rise in infection rates with the stealth BA.2 Omicron sub-variant, he adds. “It is inevitable that we will experience new variants over the coming months and these can only be monitored and traced using PCR coupled with virus genome sequencing.”

Lateral flow tests also have an important role to play in protecting the population.

“We need to remain vigilant, maintain our test and trace capacity and do everything to protect those who are most vulnerable,” says Prof. Young. “You can’t control virus infection if you don’t know where the virus is spreading. This means planning for future surges of infection by ensuring we have the ability to rapidly detect outbreaks with targeted approaches to test, trace and isolate.

“Key to this is maintaining free access to lateral flow tests for all those with symptoms. The pandemic isn’t over and, if we’ve learnt anything over the last 2 years, it’s that the impact and future of Covid-19 will remain unpredictable.”