Covid: Boris Johnson's plans to scale back free lateral-flow tests could be his next careless blunder – Martyn McLaughlin

If the UK government cannot afford to live with Covid, how can it expect anyone else to?

Having already blazed a trail thanks to its unique inability to manage a major public health emergency, it would appear Boris Johnson’s administration is undiminished in its capacity for dereliction.

At a time when other countries are ramping up provision of free lateral flow tests (LFTs) in an attempt to mitigate the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the UK looks set to rush headfirst in the opposite direction, a fatalistic course of action which risks turning a crisis into a catastrophe.

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At the weekend, reports indicated that the tests would soon only be provided free of charge to settings such as carer homes and hospitals, with a senior Whitehall source insisting that the £6 billion cost was weighing heavy. “I don’t think we are in a world where we can continue to hand out free LFTs to everybody,” the source said.

As has been the case since the advent of the pandemic, an already fraught situation has been made immeasurably worse by contradictory and incoherent messaging.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi attempted to pour cold water on the suggestion that a change in LFT strategy was imminent, insisting that the government had no plans to scale back free tests to high-risk settings only.

Then, on Monday, Michael Gove muddied the waters further, with the Housing Secretary refusing to deny that free LFTs could be phased out in the coming weeks. “As the Prime Minister and others have said, we will do whatever it takes," he said.

Such markedly different takes may be indicative of the jousting and kite flying which is going on among the Prime Minister’s underlings, an approach which is about as useful during a pandemic as a screen door on a submarine.

The UK government plans to charge individuals and businesses for lateral flow tests (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

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It is only sensible that the continuing costs of the Covid response are weighed against the public health benefits, and despite claims the LFT chatter is a “red herring”, it should not come as a surprise that this debate has reared its head. It has, after all, been clearly signposted.

In its autumn and winter Covid plan, published last September, the government pledged to continue to provide the public with access to free LFTs in “the coming months”. Yet there was a caveat.

“At a later stage,” it added, “as the government’s response to the virus changes, universal free provision of lateral flow devices will end, and individuals and businesses using the tests will bear the cost.”

The key questions, of course, are how long the “coming months” last for, and when the “later stage” begins. The plan in question predated the emergence of Omicron, and there is an ambiguity – perhaps deliberately so – around how the record spate of infections is impacting on the government’s roadmap.

One thing is abundantly clear. The longer the mixed messaging is allowed to fester, the more harmful it will be, not least given the risk of people stockpiling free LFTs.

It is not unreasonable to expect a government to distinguish between a long-term strategy and immediate policy decision. That it is unable or unwilling to do so is an insult to the exhausted NHS staff.

In any case, talk of scaling back free LFT access in the near future is premature. It makes the reckless assumption that Omicron somehow signals an end to any serious threat posed by the pandemic. The government may be gambling that the extraordinary transmissibility of the variant will bolster immunity. Yet this is, at best, an educated guess, and one reliant on the hope that Omicron will be the last variant the UK and the wider world has to contend with.

There is not a scintilla of evidence to support the argument that the virus will be permanently milder as a result of the spate of infections over the past six weeks, and there is every chance that a new variant could meld the transmissibility of Omicron with the higher disease severity of Delta.

All these scenarios, it would appear, are considered expendable when it comes to mitigating the cost and impact to the wider economy. But this in itself seems an idea born from muddled reasoning.

The free availability of LFTs – and their resultant widespread use – is key to the decisions people make every day, whether to visit a restaurant for dinner, head into the office, or head out to the shops. It allowed people to spend cherished time with their family over Christmas, and led others to the painful realisation that they would have to spend it alone if they wished to protect their loved ones.

Limiting that certainty – or at least, insisting that people pay for it – will have an immediate and damaging effect. It misunderstands the value of an admittedly expensive public health measure, and instead dismisses it as an expensive luxury.

The very notion of “living with Covid-19” – as hollow and callous a phrase as any to have been uttered by Mr Johnson – is dependent on continued caution and appropriate protective measures. The availability of LFTs to those who cannot afford to pay for them is integral to that. Take them away, and the poorest and clinically vulnerable will suffer disproportionately.

So where do we go from here? The autumn and winter plan notes that when it comes to limiting LFT provision, the government “will engage widely”. If that process is to extend beyond background briefings to Sunday newspaper journalists, it is crucial that it involves the Scottish government, which accesses LFTs procured by Whitehall.

This is a modest wish, though perhaps an unrealistic one. Carelessness and contempt have defined Mr Johnson’s response to the pandemic so far. It is not living with Covid that poses the greatest threat to the UK. It is living under the Prime Minister.

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