Free Covid testing will end for most people in England from Friday, ministers have confirmed, meaning most people who want to know if they are infected will have to pay for a test, whether they have symptoms or not.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, also said that free parking for NHS staff working in hospitals in England will come to an end on Friday.
Details of the new testing regime, released in a written ministerial statement on Tuesday, reveal that from 1 April, free symptomatic testing will be available only to hospital patients when it is required for their care and to people living or working in â€œhigh-risk settingsâ€, such as care homes and prisons.
Symptomatic testing will also continue to be provided to those already eligible for Covid-19 treatments in the community because they are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract the virus.
Free asymptomatic testing will only be provided to people in particularly high-risk settings, such as care home staff and patient-facing staff in the NHS, and only when prevalence is high and there is a risk an infection will spread rapidly.
The shift is part of the UK governmentâ€™s plan to â€œlive with Covidâ€, which argues that it is time to manage the virus as we do other infectious diseases such as flu. It means free testing for Covid should be for those in at-risk groups.
However, scientists have warned that slashing access to free lateral flow and PCR tests could put vulnerable people at risk and undermine efforts to understand the virus.
Announcing the change, the government noted that more than 55% of people currently in hospital who have tested positive are not there with Covid as a primary diagnosis, although experts say current infection rates are still causing problems including staff absences and delays to services.
Charities have also raised concerns about the move, with the Alzheimerâ€™s Society having warned that care home visitors may have to pay about Â£73 a month â€“ a sum it described as â€œa cruel tax on careâ€ â€“ if care homes ask for tests.
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, welcomed the announcement. â€œHealth leaders will be relieved that the government has seen sense and confirmed at the eleventh hour that NHS staff in patient-facing roles will continue to have access to free testing against Covid-19. This is a victory for common sense,â€ he said.
â€œAs rates of coronavirus and hospital admissions continue to be high and with one in 16 people in England believed to have the virus currently, stripping this access from those who care for some of the most vulnerable in our society would have been a massive error.
Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, said: â€œThe government praise public understanding about how to manage the risk of Covid, but knowledge is only helpful if you can do something with it.
â€œWith the ever worsening cost of living crisis, millions will not be able to afford to test themselves if they have symptoms or before visiting vulnerable people. With one of the lowest sick pay rates in Europe, millions will not be able to follow government advice to stay home if sick.
â€œWith record infections and rising hospital admissions, this is not the time to remove free access to one of the most fundamental public health tools.â€
Lateral flow tests are already available to buy on the high street, with Boots announcing in February that it will sell the devices at Â£2.50 for one or Â£12 for a pack of five. Those who wish to have the option of sending their results to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) can pay Â£17 for a pack of four tests.
Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, said it was unfortunate that free testing would not remain in place for people wishing to visit close elderly relatives in care homes.
â€œAs we know, loneliness is a real issue for many of the elderly, and barriers to regular visits such as the expense of testing are to be avoided,â€ he said.
The government has said that asymptomatic testing will remain available to â€œa small number of care home visitors who provide personal careâ€.
The announcement comes at a time when Covid infections are once again rife. According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), infection levels are at a record high in Scotland and about one in 16 people in England had Covid in the week ending 19 March, compared with one in 20 the week before, a rise from about 2,653,200 to 3,485,700 people.
The number of Covid patients in hospital is also rising, with some NHS trusts having suspended visiting as a result.
Javid said: â€œThanks to our plan to tackle Covid we are leading the way in learning to live with the virus.
â€œWe have made enormous progress but will keep the ability to respond to future threats including potential variants.
â€œVaccines remain our best defence and we are now offering spring boosters to the elderly, care home residents and the most vulnerable â€“ please come forward to protect yourself, your family and your community.â€
Reacting to the news that free parking for NHS staff at hospitals in England will end, Rachel Harrison, national officer for the GMB union, told the PA news agency: â€œCharging the NHS staff whoâ€™ve risked their lives during the pandemic to park at work is a sick joke.
â€œAfter the years of Tory cuts NHS trusts are struggling, we know. But scrabbling the money back off hard-up workers is not the answer.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the move to allow free hospital parking for staff had been â€œtemporaryâ€ and introduced in July 2020 â€œfor the duration of the pandemicâ€.
Javid said: â€œOn behalf of the government, I would like to record my thanks to everyone who has worked tirelessly to keep people safe over the last two years and whose efforts have enabled us to move to the next stage of the Covid-19 response.â€