***March 2022 Update***
People at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, and eligible for treatments, will continue to get free tests to use if they develop symptoms, along with NHS and adult social care staff and those in other high-risk settings, Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid announced today (Tuesday 29 March).
Free testing for the general public ends on 1 April as part of the Living with COVID plan which last month set out the Government’s strategy to live with and manage the virus.
Free universal testing has come at a significant cost to the taxpayer, with the testing, tracing and isolation budget costing over £15.7 billion in 2021-22. This was necessary due to the severe risk posed by COVID-19 when the population did not have a high level of protection.
Thanks to the success of the vaccination programme and access to antivirals, alongside natural immunity and increased scientific and public understanding about how to manage risk, the population now has much stronger protection against COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic. This is enabling the country to begin to manage the virus like other respiratory infections.
The success of the Government’s Living with COVID plan, will enable the country to continue to move out of the pandemic while also protecting those at higher risk of serious outcomes from the virus through our testing regime.
Symptomatic testing in high-risk settings, where infection can spread rapidly among people who may be at higher risk of serious illness, remains important to ensure that COVID-19 is detected as quickly as possible. This is to help minimise the number and impact of outbreaks to protect those who are most vulnerable.
Free tests for people who have COVID-19 symptoms will continue to be provided to the following groups, largely via the existing channels:
- NHS patients in hospital, who will be tested via the established NHS testing programme
- those eligible for COVID-19 antiviral and other treatments, who will be sent a pack of tests and can request replacements if they need them
- NHS staff and staff working in NHS-funded independent healthcare provision – the current lateral flow test ordering portal will remain available for this group to order their own tests
- adult social care staff in care homes, homecare organisations, extra care and supported living settings and adult day care centres, as well as residents in care homes and extra care and supported living settings via the established organisation ordering portal
- adult social care social workers, personal assistants, Shared Lives carers and CQC inspectors will be able to order tests from the current online lateral flow ordering system
- staff and patients in hospices will be supplied tests by the hospice
- staff and detainees in prisons and other places of detention will be supplied tests by by the detention premises as currently happens
- staff and detainees in immigration removal centres will be supplied tests, as currently happens, by the organisation concerned
- staff and users of high-risk domestic abuse refuges and homelessness settings
The Government has retained the ability to enable a rapid testing response should it be needed, such as the emergence of a new variant of concern. This includes a stockpile of lateral flow tests and the ability to ramp up testing laboratories and delivery channels.
During periods of high prevalence, asymptomatic testing will continue to mitigate risk. Testing will continue to be provided for:
- adult social care staff and a small number of visitors providing personal care
- hospice staff
- patient-facing staff in the NHS and NHS-funded independent healthcare provision
- some staff in prisons and other places of detention, and some refuges and shelters
Care home outbreak testing for all staff and residents will also continue all year.
Full guidance will be published shortly setting out how the current testing regimes will change to reflect the Living with COVID-19 strategy, which will include specific guidance for high-risk settings.
Visitors to high-risk settings
Most visitors to adult social care settings, the NHS, hospices, prisons or places of detention will no longer require a test.
Tests will continue to be provided to a small number of visitors to care homes and hospices who will be providing personal care.
Visits by people with symptoms may still be allowed in exceptional circumstances, such as end of life visits. Please contact someone responsible at the setting prior to visiting in these circumstances.
If you wish to test yourself, lateral flow tests will continue to be available to buy from pharmacies and supermarkets, including online.
It is vital that everyone continues to follow the simple steps to keep themselves and others safe.
Other Changes Announced as Part of the Living with COVID Plan
A number of changes and new guidance is also being confirmed today for adult social care including:
- From 1 April, those working in adult social care services will also continue to receive free personal protective equipment (PPE). Priority vaccinations and boosters for residents and staff will also continue
- Updated hospital discharge guidance will be published setting out how all involved in health and social care will work together to ensure smooth discharges from hospital and people receive the right care at the right time in the right place
- Designated settings will be removed. These were initially set up to provide a period of isolation to COVID-19 positive patients before they move into care homes and before routine point of care testing for COVID-19 was available. Restrictions on staff movement will also be removed
- Streamlined guidance on infection and prevention control measures will be published to set out long-standing principles on good practice, and support consistency across the adult social care sector. This will include details on future measures for COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses to ensure providers have the latest information on best practice which will include information on admissions, visiting and PPE
- Updated guidance for adult social care providers and staff to set out the current testing regime across adult social care
- Outbreak management periods in care homes, which can include visiting restrictions, have been reduced from 14 to 10 days
- People aged 75 and over, residents in care homes for elderly adults and those who are immunosuppressed are now eligible to receive a Spring booster jab to top up their immunity to COVID-19. Around five million people will be eligible for a Spring booster around six months after their previous dose, and the NHS has contacted over 600,000 people inviting them to book an appointment. Anyone who has not yet had a COVID-19 jab continues to be encouraged to take up the ‘evergreen’ offer.
The cost of these changes will be met within existing funding arrangements.
Spring COVID-19 Booster Programme
COVID-19 is more serious in older people and those with a weakened immune system. Protection from the vaccine may be lower and may decline more quickly in these people. For this reason people aged 75 years and over, those in care homes and those aged 12 years and over with a weakened immune system are being offered the spring booster.
Although vaccines are expected to provide good protection against severe COVID-19 disease, protection against mild infection with the Omicron variant seems to decline quickly, even after the booster dose.
This spring booster is being offered as a precaution to those at extremely high risk, most of whom received their first booster around 6 months ago. If the number of infections increases over the summer, this booster should help to reduce your risk of being admitted to hospital with COVID-19.