The government has quietly altered its guidance for people in England trying to order free lateral flow tests more than a week earlier than planned in a bid to discourage the general public from competing with at-risk groups for limited supply.
Under the government’s “living with Covid” plan, the provision of free rapid tests for people in England was due to end on April 1. However, people trying to order lateral flow tests from the government’s ordering platform on Monday evening were informed that most people were no longer eligible to receive the tests.
“Most tests are now needed for people at higher risk in England,” the updated guidance said, adding that “most people without Covid-19 symptoms no longer need to take rapid lateral flow tests”.
It noted that eligibility had been restricted “to make sure tests are available for people who need them most”, including NHS workers, vulnerable individuals and those visiting high-risk settings.
One employee at the Department of Health told the Financial Times the guidance was changed early “to manage demand” and to prevent a “free-for-all” as people try to snap up tests before widescale free testing is wound down at the end of the month.
Another health official said the general public could still order tests but added that the limits on supply were designed to encourage non-vulnerable people to “question whether they need a test” or could “instead allow those in [at-risk] groups to order them as a priority”.
The plan to cut free, universal testing in England from the start of April has sparked criticism from experts who warn that it will make the pandemic more difficult to monitor and quicken the spread of the virus. It follows the end to legally-enforced self-isolation in England since late February.
In January when the Omicron variant was surging, around 300mn lateral flow tests were made available, but supply fell substantially in March, according to people familiar with the matter. Visitors to the government website have complained of struggling to access tests in recent days.
The UK is currently in the grip of a fresh outbreak of infections and hospitalisations, prompted by waning behavioural caution and the spread of the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 sub-variant, which is around 30 per cent more transmissible than Omicron BA.1.
Some 607,737 people tested positive for Covid across the UK in the week ending March 21, an increase of 37 per cent on the previous week. Scotland hit a record high of 2,128 Covid patients as of March 20.
Around 12,000 Covid patients were admitted to hospital in England in the week to March 19, up 25 per cent on a week earlier. However, nearly three-fifths of Covid-positive patients in English hospitals were not being treated primarily for the disease and had tested positive incidentally upon admission, according to the latest data.
The UK Health Security Agency said: “As set out in the Living with Covid plan, from 1 April free tests will only be available for certain groups who are at most risk from the virus. In preparation for this change, the gov.uk home ordering channel is asking users to only order test kits if you’re eligible for new Covid-19 treatments, work or volunteer in a high risk setting or support people who are at higher risk from Covid-19.”
Separately on Monday, the Department for Health and Social Care published contracts for the supply of lateral flow tests from late February till late August, worth nearly £1bn in total.