Living with Covid-19 strategy neglects the most vulnerable, says BMA

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA

Location: England
Last reviewed: 21 February 2022
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Responding to the statement from the Prime Minster on the Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ strategy, which includes the removal of free Covid-19 tests for the public from 1 April in England, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said:

“Today’s announcement fails to protect those at highest risk of harm from Covid-19, and neglects some of the most vulnerable people in society.

“We recognise the need, after two years of the pandemic, to begin thinking about how we adjust our lives to manage living alongside Covid-19, but as the BMA has persistently said the decision to bring forward the removal of all protective measures while cases, deaths and the number of people seriously ill remain so high is premature.

“Living with Covid-19 must not mean ignoring the virus all together – which in many respects the Government’s plan in England seems to do.

“On the one hand the Government says it will keep monitoring the spread of the virus, and asks individuals to take greater responsibility for their own decisions, but by removing free testing for the vast majority of the population on the other, ministers are taking away the central tool to allow both of these to happen.

“Far from giving people more freedom, today’s announcement is likely to cause more uncertainty and anxiety.

“Crucially, it will create a two-tier system, where those who can afford to pay for testing – and indeed to self-isolate – will do so, while others will be forced to gamble on the health of themselves and others.

“Covid-19 has already disproportionately impacted those on lower incomes, in insecure employment and from ethnic minorities. This move threatens to exacerbate these health inequalities.

“People will want to do the right thing, and not knowingly put others at risk if they are infected, but how can they make such a judgement if they have no way of knowing if they’re carrying the virus or not? This is especially important for those who come into contact with people who are at much greater risk of becoming ill with Covid-19, such as elderly relatives or those who are clinically vulnerable.

“Providing free tests to clinically vulnerable people – and only once they develop symptoms and are potentially very unwell - but not providing any free tests to friends or family who come into contact with them is completely illogical, as the priority should be protecting them from infection in the first place. The same goes for care home staff, who will only be tested if they have symptoms, by which time they could have passed on the virus to vulnerable residents.

“There must also be urgent clarity around testing provision for NHS workers. People visit hospitals and surgeries to get better, and not to be exposed to deadly viruses, and the continuation of testing for healthcare workers is invaluable in protecting both staff and patients.

“That plans are underway for a new booster programme is sensible but we must not – as we have continued to state - rely solely on vaccination to protect the nation. The necessity for further boosters underlines that Covid-19 will continue to present a challenge for healthcare services and wider society for potentially many years to come. And while the Prime Minister talks about Omicron resulting in a mild illness for most, others will still become very unwell with Covid-19, and an estimated more than one million people continue to live with long-Covid – themselves needing ongoing care.

“As part of ‘learning to live with Covid’, protections must be maintained for the most vulnerable, including the provision of enhanced face masks, and clear guidance for both patients and clinicians. Meanwhile, all people must be financially supported to do the right thing, and the removal of self-isolation payments, and then access to statutory sick pay in a months’ time, is incredibly concerning, as it will mean people cannot afford to stay at home if they are unwell. In healthcare settings, enhanced infection prevention measures – including mask-wearing for patients and enhanced PPE for staff - must remain, while in the longer-term premises are in desperate need of improvements, such as higher standards of ventilation, to limit the spread of infections.

“And with such a planned scale back of free testing, it is imperative that the Government keeps its commitment to continue other surveillance methods, including the ONS infection survey1, and to not hesitate to act on worrying surges of infections or new dangerous variants.”

Ends

Notes to editors

The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. The BMA wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week, urging him to continue funding the ONS infection survey. Read the letter here.