Only one in four people willing to pay for Covid tests

Back to living with the virus “blindfold”, as we were at the beginning in March 2020, not good when a new mutation appears – Owl

Chris Smyth 

Most people say they will stop checking themselves for Covid once tests are no longer free.

Just one in four say they will carry on taking tests if they have symptoms once they have to pay, a finding that is likely to intensify fears that infections could rebound now all restrictions are lifted.

In a YouGov poll for The Times one in six people in England said they would no longer bother to isolate if they were confirmed to have the virus, after a legal requirement to do so was dropped this week.

Public health guidance continues to urge people to stay at home if they have Covid and the poll found that 78 per cent said they probably or definitely would isolate if they tested positive.

Young people are far less likely to stay at home, with 22 per cent of those aged 18-24 saying they would not isolate if they had Covid, compared with 7 per cent of over the 65s.

The poll raises the question of whether people will actually know that they have Covid once free tests end in spring. From April 1, only the most vulnerable will be eligible for free tests in England, with ministers saying they will work with companies to establish a market so that people can pay for tests themselves.

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, pressed for the end of free tests, which cost £2 billion a month, and won out over Sajid Javid, the health secretary, who wanted wider eligibility.

The poll found just 24 per cent of people would pay to take a test if they had Covid symptoms. The elderly were most likely to do so, but still just 35 per cent of over 65s said they would and 17 per cent of the under 25s.

Even among those who said they would be willing to pay, most would not pay more than £5, with 23 per cent saying £1 was the most they would hand over for a test, and 52 per cent saying up to £5. Just 4 per cent said they would pay more than £10. Officials expect that tests will sell for a few pounds each, with Boots saying this week that it will be selling individual tests for £5.99 or in packs of four for £17.

Internal government debates are still raging over the extent of NHS staff testing and the size of a test stockpile to be kept in readiness for future variants, after Sunak insisted they had to be paid for out of existing health budgets.

Javid has warned this could delay plans for social care reform and bringing down waiting lists.

With masks no longer compulsory in England, fewer people say they will carry on wearing them in shops or public transport than when face-covering rules were similarly relaxed last summer. Some 60 per cent say they will carry on wearing masks, compared with 70 per cent last July.

Rising numbers are also relaxed being around others who are not wearing masks, with an even split between those saying they would and would not be comfortable travelling on public transport when others were not wearing face coverings. This week 43 per cent said they would be comfortable, up from 31 per cent in July. YouGov interviewed 1,504 adults in England on Thursday and Friday.

While government science advisers have largely accepted the argument for returning to normality, they are concerned by the imminent end of widespread testing. Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, told The Times that while England was “in a good position to ease restrictions”, widely available lateral flow tests were “particularly useful when the prevalence is high and I would prefer to see them in place for the time being”.