According to the BMA, requiring staff to pay for their own lateral flow tests amounts to a ‘tax on work’, exacerbated by a steep rise in the cost of living

Lateral flow test device covid test

NHS staff in England need clarification on the future of COVID-19 testing and whether they will remain eligible for free tests from next month, the British Medical Association (BMA) has said.

In a letter to Amanda Pritchard, Chief Executive of NHS England, the BMA warned that regular, free testing was essential to protect healthcare staff and patients.

‘Clearly, at a time when the NHS faces the largest backlog of care, amidst workforce shortages, we cannot afford to see any further reductions in staffing capacity’, said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA Council Chair.

The NHS Confederation has also called for clarity on the issue of free testing.

Living with COVID-19

In February 2022, the Government announced that it would no longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England from 1 April, as part of its ‘living with COVID-19’ strategy.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s spring statement made no mention of any funding to prolong free testing for healthcare staff, who are currently required to test themselves for COVID-19 twice a week.

In its response, the BMA argued that if staff were still required to take lateral flow tests and pay for them, it would amount to a ‘tax on work’, exacerbated by a steep rise in the cost of living.

Dr Nagpaul said: ‘Scrapping free testing would inevitably increase the spread of infection and mean more staff going off sick at a time when the NHS workforce is already severely depleted. COVID-related staff absences currently account for 30% of all NHS staff absences, and this will only get worse if free testing is removed, again threatening our ability to provide safe patient care. Even if healthcare workers are asymptomatic, the virus can still be passed on and have serious consequences for patients, especially those who are clinically vulnerable.’

Loss of a virus tracking tool

Ending free testing would also weaken our ability to monitor the spread of coronavirus, the BMA said.

‘The number of COVID cases has risen rapidly over the last month’, said Dr Nagpaul. ‘We are, therefore, additionally concerned that removing our primary tracking tool for understanding how prevalent the disease is, and giving it free reign to spread, poses a serious risk to adding further pressures to an already overstretched health service.’

Last week, the NHS Confederation estimated that if NHS staff had to test twice a week, each staff person could have to pay around £50 a month for test kits.

NHS Confederation Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, said: ‘Health leaders are adamant that continuing to offer free testing to NHS staff is vital given that rates of coronavirus and hospital admissions are still very high and rising.’

He added: ‘In the face of a cost-of-living crisis, many staff will simply not be able to afford to regularly buy their tests. Given the huge expectations placed on the NHS to recover its services while contending with significant vacancies, staff need to be supported to understand their COVID status, stay well, and keep transmission within healthcare settings to a minimum.’

On 23 February, NHS England promised to ‘communicate further’ about the provision of testing for NHS staff and patients following consultation with the UK Health Security Agency and the DHSC. When asked for comment, NHS England referred Medscape UK to the DHSC for comment. As of today, there has been no communication from the DHSC, and they have not responded to comment.

This article originally appeared on Medscape, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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Lead image: Ian Gessey/stock.adobe.com

Image 1: Ian Gessey/stock.adobe.com