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England ends free virus tests under ‘living with COVID’ plan

LONDON (AP) – The British government is ending the supply of free rapid coronavirus tests to most of the population even though COVID-19 infections remain at record levels, and health officials warn the pandemic could still have nasty surprises in store.

More than 1.7 billion test kits have been handed out in workplaces, pharmacies and by mail over the past year, the government said, under a policy that encouraged people to test themselves regularly as a way to stamp out new outbreaks.

But starting today, most people in England will have to buy lateral flow tests from pharmacies or online suppliers.

Lateral flow tests use throat or nose swabs and give results in minutes, but are less accurate than the PCR swab tests used to officially confirm cases of COVID-19.

Tests will remain free for staff in high-risk settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and prisons, but under the government’s “Living with COVID” plan most other people in England will now have to pay.

A student is given a PCR test during COVID-19 testing at a school in in Manchester. PHOTO: AP

Some free testing will continue for several weeks in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Lawmaker Daisy Cooper, health spokeswoman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said scrapping free tests would be another expense for people already coping with surging food and energy prices.

“It is a tax on caring for all those who want to do the right thing and get tested before visiting elderly or vulnerable relatives,” she said.

Critics also argue that the move comes at a dangerous time, with an estimated one in 16 people in England infected with the virus, according to the Office for National Statistics. There were 15,632 people in hospital in England with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, the highest number for more than three months.

The number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators remains low, however, and deaths are far below the peaks of previous waves in 2020 and 2021.

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