Saturday, June 3

End of free Covid testing risks creating ‘a perfect storm’ for UK economy | Coronavirus

The removal of free Covid tests is an “anti-business” measure that risks hitting the economy as it faces spiraling costs and uncertainty, ministers have been warned.

Some workplaces are already seeing teams hit hard by Covid absences, after the number of infections reached its highest level on record last week. Official data suggests almost 5 million people have the disease, or one in 13 of the population. It comes with businesses already facing spiraling costs, as well as higher national insurance payments from this month. Employees are also being faced with a decision over when to test.

There are now concerns that the withdrawal of free Covid tests for most people in England last Friday will lead to high levels of absences that could be avoided, causing more disruption of businesses already struggling. There are pleas for a rethink, with concerns that smaller businesses, as well as hospitality, could be heavily affected.

“The Westminster government needs to understand that we are still living through Covid rather than with it, and change their approach to again provide tests free of charge,” said Dan Shears, the GMB union’s health and safety officer. “The cost of providing tests will likely be dwarfed by the productivity cost of millions of preventable infections.”

Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, said that the government had created a “perfect storm” for the economy and workers. “Ending free Covid tests in the middle of a cost of living crisis is terrible for family budgets and for public health,” she said. “With cases soaring again, the last thing workers should be worrying about is how they are going to afford tests. But that’s the position many frontline and low-paid staff have been put in.”

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Some unions are now calling on employers to help bear the costs of testing, as they would benefit from the lower absences. “It isn’t appropriate for workers to bear the cost of Covid testing to be able to go to work each day,” said Shears. “Workers do not buy their own PPE, and they should not buy their own tests.”

Senior NHS figures are concerned that the lower Covid hospitalization rate is creating complacency. Some health figures said they were seeing their most difficult period of the pandemic, while hospital cases in some areas were still weeks away from peaking. Scientists expect infections from the Omicron coronavirus variant known as BA.2 to fall by the end of this month.

Senior NHS figures fear the fact that there are fewer admissions to Covid wards than there were earlier in the pandemic is leading to a false sense of complacency. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

“There’s clearly lots of other things going on – I think that is lulling the public into a bit of a false sense of security,” said Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at NHS Confederation. “Thanks to vaccines, people with Omicron are less likely to need hospital care but a small proportion always will. A small proportion of a giant number is still a pretty big number, and lots of our members are still seeing it rising.

“In previous waves of Covid, there’s been a national appreciation of the challenge the NHS is currently encountering and mitigations have been taken. Right now, the NHS is in a confusing scenario where they know they are under huge pressure due to Covid but they’re also being expected to deliver on recovery plans, when they might not necessarily feel they’re at that stage.”

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The Lib Dems calculated that pub owners, already struggling through the pandemic and facing rising costs including the return of a 20% VAT rate, could face a bill for £4,000 a year to provide testing for their staff should they choose to do so. “The decision to scrap free tests is anti-business,” said Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem health spokesperson. “This government has lost touch with the harsh reality faced by business owners who just want to stay safe and stay open. Yet again, small businesses are being shafted by this government’s nonsensical Covid policies.”

Meanwhile, teachers warned that free tests were being axed and self-isolation rules relaxed in a way that was confusing and mis-timed. Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Children who are ‘unwell and have a high temperature’ should stay at home until they no longer have a high temperature.

“Adults who do test positive are being advised to ‘try to stay at home’ for five days, and children for three. This confusing guidance is a recipe for even more chaos and will make managing cases and preventing disruption of pupils’ education even harder than it already is.”

Health department officials pointed out that the testing, tracing and isolation budget had cost more than £15.7bn in 2021-22. They said the population’s protection from Covid was now high enough to reduce the costs, as a result of vaccinations.

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