Welsh and Scottish government’s hit out at Boris Johnson’s plans to scrap free lateral flow tests

Johnson is expected to announce the end of all remaining COVID-19 restrictions and free testing today

The Welsh and Scottish governments have hit out at Boris Johnson’s plans to scrap free lateral flow tests in the UK, calling the idea “dangerous and reckless”.

Johnson is expected to announce plans to remove all remaining COVID-19 restrictions and scrap access to free testing later today (February 21).

Lateral flow tests are currently free to order from the government online or to pick up in person from pharmacies. However, UK residents could soon have to purchase their own tests if the government does cancel the free testing programme.

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Government leaders in Wales and Scotland have expressed their doubts over removing free tests, with Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford calling the move “premature and reckless”. “Testing has played a pivotal role in breaking chains of transmission and as a surveillance tool helping us detect and respond to emerging variants,” he tweeted.

“It’s essential that this continues. Any decision to effectively turn off the tap on our National Testing Programme, with no future plans in place to reactivate it, would put people at risk. In Wales, we’ll continue to make decisions to protect the health of people based on the scientific evidence available to us.”

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also spoken out against the reported plan, saying she does “not think a hard, sudden stop to all testing is appropriate”. Sturgeon said an end to free testing should come via a “careful, properly thought-out phased transition to perhaps what later in the year – all being well – might be a more targeted approach to testing”.

“We are in discussions with the UK Government as we speak,” she told PA. “There have been official discussions all week. I actually have a four-nations ministerial discussion about this later this afternoon.

“What we’re trying to achieve is – whatever the UK government decides for England, which is their right, whether I think it’s right or wrong – that they don’t, through whatever happens to the funding flows, constrain the ability of the devolved administrations to have the approach we think is right in terms of public health.” She added that discussions were ongoing and would “hopefully” allow the Scottish government to “do what we think is right”.

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Speaking today, Johnson said the end of free testing and other remaining restrictions would bring the UK “towards a return to normality”. He added that testing would take place at a “much lower level”, noting that £2billion was spent on COVID tests in January 2022.

Last month, figures from the world of live music said free lateral flow tests were “essential” for keeping gigs and festivals safe. “Our industry has been encouraging artists, crew and fans to take LFTs since music events slowly started to reopen following the extending and damaging period of shut down,” David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists’ Coalition, told NME.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his speech during the Conservative Party conference at Manchester Central Convention Complex on October 6, 2021 Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

“Evidence of a negative test still represents the best method of ensuring events operate safely while transmission of the virus continues to be a risk. Indeed, the Government’s own Plan B measures include the use of LFTs as a key mitigation measure for attendance at events.

“The removal of access to free LFTs would be a complete own goal in the fight against COVID-19 and would represent yet another example of mixed messaging for a sector that, over the last 22 months, has faced its most challenging period in a generation.”

Among the other restrictions set to be axed in England are the self-isolation rules for those who test positive for COVID-19. Currently, people who test positive are legally required to self-isolate for up to 10 days, but can end their quarantine period earlier if they receive negative lateral flow results on days five and six.

Yesterday (February 20), the Music Venue Trust’s CEO, Mark Davyd, said the relaxing of restrictions presented “very much a mixed bag of changes with positive and negative aspects for the music industry”.

“On the one hand, changes to travel rules on testing and the forthcoming changes to isolation are positive moves for international travelling and will provide additional assurances to US, European and other artists that tours can go ahead as planned with a degree of certainty,” Davyd told NME.

“On the negative side, it remains the case that a significant number of vulnerable people, particularly the immunosuppressed, face the choice of taking known risks to take part in live music, both artists and audiences.”

He added that the removal of access to free testing would create a “complicated situation for venues who want to continue to what they can to protect their community”.

Yesterday, 25,536 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the UK, taking the country’s total to 18.7million cases since the start of the pandemic. To date, more than 161,000 people have died from the virus.

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