Cutting free Covid tests is an ‘anti-business’ measure that risks hitting the economy as it faces spiraling costs and uncertainty, ministers have warned.
Some workplaces are already seeing teams hit hard by Covid absences, after the number of infections hit its highest level on record last week. Official data suggests that almost 5 million people have the disease, or one in 13 of the population. That comes with businesses already facing spiraling costs, as well as higher National Insurance payments from this month. Employees also face a decision about when to test.
There are now fears that the withdrawal of free Covid tests for most people in England last Friday could lead to high levels of avoidable absences, causing further disruption to already struggling businesses. There are calls for rethinking, with concerns that small businesses, as well as the hospitality industry, could be badly affected.
“The Westminster Government must understand that we are still living through Covid rather than with it, and change their approach to providing free testing again,” said Dan Shears, head of health and safety at the GMB union. “The cost of providing testing will likely be dwarfed by the productivity cost of millions of preventable infections.”
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said the government had created a “perfect storm” for the economy and workers. “Ending free Covid testing in the midst 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 worry about is how they are going to pay for the tests. But that’s the position that many front-line, low-paid workers have been placed in.
Some unions are now asking employers to help with the costs of testing, as they would benefit from lower absences. “It’s not appropriate for workers to bear the cost of Covid testing so they can go to work every day,” Shears said. “Workers don’t buy their own PPE and they shouldn’t buy their own tests.”
Senior NHS officials fear Covid’s lower hospitalization rate is creating complacency. Some health figures said they were experiencing their toughest time of the pandemic, while hospital cases in some areas were still weeks away from a peak. Scientists expect infections with the Omicron coronavirus variant known as BA.2 to decline by the end of this month.
“There’s clearly a lot of other stuff going on – I think it’s lulling the public into a false sense of security,” said Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation. “Thanks to vaccines, people with Omicron are less likely to need hospital care, but a small proportion will still need it. A small proportion of a giant number is still quite a large number, and many of our members see it increase further.
“In previous waves of Covid, there has been a national appreciation of the challenge the NHS is currently facing and mitigating measures have been taken. At the moment the NHS finds itself in a confusing scenario where it knows it is under huge pressure from Covid, but is also expected to implement recovery plans, as ‘he doesn’t necessarily feel at this point.
The Lib Dems have calculated that pub owners, already battling the pandemic and facing rising costs, including the return of a 20 per cent VAT rate, could face a bill of £4,000 a year to provide testing for their staff if they choose to do so. “The decision to scrap free testing is anti-business,” said Lib Dem health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper. “This government has lost touch with the harsh reality faced by business owners who just want to stay safe and stay open. Once again, small businesses are being fooled by this government’s absurd policies on Covid. »
Meanwhile, teachers have warned that free testing is being scrapped and self-isolation rules are being relaxed in a confusing and untimely way. Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘Children who are unwell and have a high temperature should stay home until they have had a more high temperature.
“Adults who test positive are advised to ‘try to stay home’ for five days and children for three. This confusing guidance is a recipe for even more chaos and will make case management and prevention student education disruptions even more difficult than they already are.
Health department officials pointed out that the testing, research and isolation budget cost more than £15.7billion in 2021-22. They said the protection of the population against Covid was now high enough to reduce costs, thanks to vaccinations.