In its ‘Living with COVID-19’ plan, published in February 2022, the government announced an end to access to free lateral flow tests for the general public from 1 April 2022.
This decision was taken because the government noted that free universal testing came at a significant cost to the taxpayer, with the testing, tracing and isolation budget costing more than £15.7bn in 2021/2022, as well as there being a greater level of protection against COVID-19 among the population than previously during the pandemic.
The plan had promised “some limited ongoing free testing”, including limited symptomatic testing “for a small number of at-risk groups” and free symptomatic testing for social care staff.
However, in an update published on 29 March 2022, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said asymptomatic lateral flow testing will now continue from April 2022 “in some high-risk settings where infection can spread rapidly while prevalence is high”, including for “patient-facing staff in the NHS” in England.
When asked whether this includes free lateral flow testing for community pharmacy staff, a spokesperson for the DHSC told The Pharmaceutical Journal that NHS England and Improvement “have confirmed that all primary care-facing staff are included in free testing”.
The government’s update added that free symptomatic testing will be available for patients in hospital, people living or working in high-risk settings and for “people who are eligible for community COVID-19 treatments”.
To access community COVID-19 treatments, which include antivirals and neutralising monoclonal antibody treatments, patients are required to have received a positive PCR test for COVID-19 and COVID-19 symptoms within the past five days.
Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: “As we learn to live with COVID-19, we are focusing our testing provision on those at higher risk of serious outcomes from the virus, while encouraging people to keep following simple steps to help keep themselves and others safe.”
She added that “vaccination remains the best way to protect us all from severe disease and hospitalisation due to COVID-19 infection”.
As of November 2021, community pharmacies had fulfilled 17 million requests for lateral flow test kits as part of the Pharmacy Collect service.
However, pharmacists were warned by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee on 17 March 2022 that they must “proactively distribute test kits” before the end of the service on 31 March 2022, as “there will be no process in place for collecting unused kits from pharmacies at the end of the service and the UKHSA are discouraging the destruction of test kits”.