Free Covid testing ends as health chief warns pandemic to ‘remain unpredictable’

There were 15,632 people in hospital in England with Covid-19 on Wednesday, up 18% on the previous week.

31 March 2022

Most people in England will have to pay for Covid tests from Friday.

The Government’s “living with Covid” plan means testing will only continue for certain groups, with others who think they have coronavirus urged to stay at home.

Some free testing will continue during April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.

Ministers in England argue that even though infection levels have been rising, vaccines and antivirals are working to protect the vast majority of people.

The most recent data shows there were 15,632 people in hospital in England with Covid-19 as of Wednesday, up 18% week-on-week and the highest since January 19.

Asked on Thursday morning if it is the right time to end free Covid testing, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Dame Jenny Harries said the UK must be prepared for the pandemic to “remain unpredictable”.

She said: “The pandemic takes its own course and it will remain unpredictable to a large extent for the next say 18 months to two years, I think is general consensus, and we will have to be continuously alert to monitor those rates and to respond appropriately to any new variants.

“But as with other respiratory viruses such as flu… at some point we have to come to terms with that.”

People should continue to take precautions, she said, adding that she will continue to wear a mask in shops and on public transport.

She said warmer weather will likely drive down infection rates and there are high levels of population immunity as long as people get all their booster jabs.

The Government has set out the groups who will still be eligible for free testing when they have symptoms of the virus.

These include some hospital patients, some people at high risk of severe Covid, and some who live or work in “high risk settings” including some NHS and social care units or prisons.

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.

People who have a positive Covid-19 test in England will be advised to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days, which is when they are most infectious.

Those who are positive, or have symptoms, and need to leave home are being urged to wear masks, avoid crowded places and stay away from people with weakened immune systems.

Covid-19 tests will still be available to buy on the high street, with prices starting at around £2.

Data on Covid shows NHS inpatient numbers are nearing the peak reached in early January 2022 – 17,120 – but remain well below the 34,336 at the peak of the second wave of the virus at the start of 2021.

Three regions of England have already passed their January 2022 peak – the South West, the South East and eastern England.

Average daily hospital admissions in England of people with Covid-19 currently stand at 2,050: the highest since February 5, 2021.

But the number of people in mechanical ventilator beds is still very low: 318 as of Wednesday, which is some way below the level reached at the start of this year (797) and far below the total at the start of 2021 (3,736).

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