Scrapping Free Lateral Flow Tests Threatens To Cut Off Disabled People
Disability, Health / 31 Jan 2022

Scrapping Free Lateral Flow Tests Threatens To Cut Off Disabled People

By Emma Guy, Editor

As Covid-19 restrictions change in the UK, so the approach to testing for the virus is set to change too, as Whitehall sources suggest the government will scrap free Lateral Flow Testing kits (LFTs) ‘within weeks’.

It is the latest in a long line of attempts to wind-down the response to Covid-19, as we ‘learn to live with the virus’.

The proposal to scrap free rapid testing kits is the latest in a series of scale-backs by the government which will make it harder for people not only to access healthcare but also to maintain their own health.

Recent government initiatives have included temporarily suspending polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests as a form of secondary testing, meaning that you are no longer required to take a PCR to confirm a lateral flow test, and scaling back resources for NHS Test and Trace.

This week, as the last of the ‘Plan B’ measures are lifted in England, non-governmental organisation (NGOs) and healthcare unions are concerned about how disabled people and people with chronic health conditions will be disproportionately affected.

Scrapping free LFTs could add to a growing ‘disability tax’

The right to health is a key component of our human rights. Under the 1946 Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO), this means that a person has the right to “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

The right to health is also acknowledged by The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 25), as well as under The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

However, under new government proposals, only those in ‘high risk’ settings, such as care homes, hospitals and schools, would have access to free LFT kits.

Whether regularly testing for work, or as part of a routine of checking your Covid status prior to visiting a vulnerable person or attending an appointment or event, LFTs act as an early warning sign to the asymptomatic individual and support the self-isolation regime that prevents unknowing transmission of the virus.

On average, those with disabilities and chronic conditions spend nearly £600 a month relating to their healthcare, adding to a growing ‘disability tax’. While the cost of living rises, for those with disabilities an added monthly cost could be devastating.

Disabled people would be ‘cut off’

Equal Lives, a disability rights organisation, stated that many people with disabilities would not be able to afford LFTs on a regular basis, should the government decide to scrap the free scheme:

Given that most disabled people are on low incomes and are the group of people who need to test the most (and surrounded by those who also need to test more), charging for the lateral flow tests will have a substantial negative impact on the disabled community.

Credit: Equal Lives

Given that most disabled people are on low incomes and are the group of people who need to test the most (and surrounded by those who also need to test more), charging for the lateral flow tests will have a substantial negative impact on the disabled community.

Equal Lives also told us that, as a result of not having access to regular testing, this could lead to more disabled people being isolated and missing appointments related to their health:

“Not being able to afford LFTs could also increase isolation, anxiety and other barriers that disabled people already face, as well as reduce their ability to access appointments and services.”

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that 7 million people in poverty are either disabled themselves or live with a disabled person, meaning that scrapping LFTs will affect a huge number of households in which a disabled person lives. But it is not only disability rights organisations that are concerned about the inaccessibility of LFTs.

The Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) is the largest membership organisation and the only independent trade union exclusively for pharmacists in the UK. PDA Director, Paul Day, told us that they are also concerned about how those with disabilities will be disproportionately affected:

“We recognise that, for some disabled people, there may be more reason to isolate and, if the virus spreads or there is greater uncertainty, this may cause individualS to be cut off from the world more often and for longer periods of time. Others may face barriers if required to go to multiple pharmacies in search of a supply of test kits.”

Credit: Jernej Furman.

“We recognise that, for some disabled people, there may be more reason to isolate and, if the virus spreads or there is greater uncertainty, this may cause individualS to be cut off from the world more often and for longer periods of time. Others may face barriers if required to go to multiple pharmacies in search of a supply of test kits.”

Day told us that if free LFTs are scrapped, it would make life for those living with physical illnesses, mental ill health, cognitive differences and deteriorative health conditions much harder.

£800 million was wasted on faulty tests

In 2020, the government established an LFT buying programme called ‘Operation Moonshot’. It was a mass testing scheme designed to screen millions of people per day for Covid-19.

Despite spending £800m on LFTs, a pilot study later found that the tests ‘didn’t work’. The Innova Medical Group, which was the largest single recipient of payments for Covid-19 contracts, was found to have supplied tests that gave the wrong result up to 60% of the time.

However, there is another reason behind charging for LFTs which boils down to shortages in supply chains. As a result, the government has recently come under fire by business who state that shortages must be remedied in order to keep the UK economy ‘on track’.

Credit: Dudley Council

What do LFT shortages mean for healthcare staff?

Shortages in supply chains have not just left people vulnerable and businesses affected, but they have also posed risks to NHS staff. Day told us that a shortage of LFTs in supply chains has resulted in pharmacy staff suffering abusive behaviour:

“Our members include pharmacists working in the community who have been at the forefront of supplying the testing kits to the public, and when demand has been high and tests in short supply, they have wrongly borne the brunt of people’s frustration when accessing kits has been problematic.”

However, Day did tell us that in spite of hostile working environments for pharmacists, the fact that LFT kits are in high demand is a promising sign that the consensus is that the public still want to test themselves for Covid-19. He stated:

"What this does tell us is that it is evident, through the high levels of engagement that we have seen from the public, that testing is cemented in the behaviours of a large section of society to protect those that they may come into contact with, either professionally or socially."

Credit: CharcoalSoul

"What this does tell us is that it is evident, through the high levels of engagement that we have seen from the public, that testing is cemented in the behaviours of a large section of society to protect those that they may come into contact with, either professionally or socially."

This may appear promising news as the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, tells the public that we must ‘learn to live’ with the virus.

Can we “learn to live” with Covid-19?

While it is thought that rapid testing kits will no longer be free in England, the idea has been criticised by MPs across the UK and in particular by the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon took to Twitter to clarify that if the scrappage gets the green light from the UK government, the Scottish Government did not sign up to it, making it unclear, if a fee-system is introduced, whether Scotland will enforce it.

The phrase ‘learn to live with covid’ has caused widespread debate about easing restrictions in the UK and what the reality of living with the virus might mean in daily life.

Day told us that while the UK is moving into an endemic state, we should not undo the hard work the public has done the last two years to stay safe:

“Although we are moving from pandemic to endemic, the advent of the Omicron variant demonstrated that we are still vulnerable to highly infectious strains of the virus, and readily accessible and free testing is part of the armoury, along with vaccinations and other measures, to minimise the impact on public health and support the NHS.”

In recent weeks, a growing number of NGOs and charities have spoken out, stating that policymakers must listen to people living with ill health as we move into the endemic stage.

The chief executive of National Voices, Charlotte Augst, stated:

We still have one of the lowest levels of statutory sick pay in Europe. We still have not sorted accessible help for people on low wages to repeatedly self-isolate.

Credit: National Voices

We still have one of the lowest levels of statutory sick pay in Europe. We still have not sorted accessible help for people on low wages to repeatedly self-isolate.

Augst also expressed concern over ever-changing regulations and the lack of inclusivity in the government relaying new rules:

“There is no plan for people who are clinically vulnerable or have caught Long Covid to be protected from job loss. Our communication of expectations and rules has been patchy at best, and pitiful at worst—and there is still no British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter standing alongside our prime minister in Downing Street.”

Meanwhile, the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, stated:

“Our vaccines, testing and antivirals ensure we have some of the strongest defences in Europe and are allowing us to cautiously return to Plan A, restoring more freedoms to this country.

As we learn to live with COVID, we need to be clear-eyed that this virus is not going away. So, if you haven’t already, please come forward for your first, second or booster jab.”

The department of health and social care was unable to confirm whether free LFTs will definitely be scrapped and, if so, when this might occur.

About The Author

Emma Guy Editor

Emma has a background in undercover and investigative journalism. For the last few years, she has co-created Investigation units for independent media outlets and produced investigative podcasts that lift the lid on injustices in the UK legal system. She is passionate about making investigations and human rights inclusive for audiences and works with grassroots movements and activists to do this. Outside of work, Emma is also a PhD candidate in Human Rights Law, investigating reproductive rights and trafficking in the UK and Europe.

Emma has a background in undercover and investigative journalism. For the last few years, she has co-created Investigation units for independent media outlets and produced investigative podcasts that lift the lid on injustices in the UK legal system. She is passionate about making investigations and human rights inclusive for audiences and works with grassroots movements and activists to do this. Outside of work, Emma is also a PhD candidate in Human Rights Law, investigating reproductive rights and trafficking in the UK and Europe.