By Sean Mulryan – Current Affairs Editor
Governmental plans laid out by Boris Johnson have detailed the end to free testing in England as we begin to transition into living with and managing the virus, leaving many to speculate when Northern Ireland follow suit.
The testing programme has seen a total of 2 billion lateral flow tests provided to combat the spread of Covid-19 since 2020, but from April 1st this will come to an end for the majority of the population.
Sinn Féin Councillor, Sandra Duffy, has disputed plans for an end to free Covid-19 testing, citing the financial strain to the mass population a primary issue.
“This is in line with the reckless approach adopted by the Tories throughout the pandemic. It is important that at this point in the pandemic we maintain protections from the virus, particularly for the most vulnerable in our communities,” Spoke Colr. Duffy.
“Ending free testing and putting the costs on ordinary people who are already struggling with a cost-of-living crisis will act as a deterrent to people getting tested and could see an increase in the spread of the virus.”
Statistics released daily by the Department of Health place the total number of Covid-19 related deaths to 3,189, up 24 from last week. There is currently 17,091 positive cases with hospital capacity topping at 107%.
The announcement has led to a surge in request for lateral flows before they become locked behind a paywall, even with the Prime Minister stating that the testing has become “less valuable in preventing serious illness.”
Along with this comes to an end the legal requirement to self-isolate when positive with Covid-19, from Thursday 24th, “as we begin to treat Covid as other infectious diseases such as flu” said Boris Johnson.
Debates are well underway within the Department of Health in the North on whether or not to adopt the measures brought in by England. No legislation changes will be implemented soon however, due to the limited operational powers of the executive as a result of First Minister Paul Given’s resignation at the beginning of February.
Nonetheless, Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann has vehemently warned he will not be rushed into any rash decisions.
He took to twitter to say, “I will not be rushed into making decisions on COVID testing based on timetables set elsewhere. I have asked officials to draw up policy options based on an appropriate, proportionate approach to testing in NI. In the meantime, there will be no changes to the current approach. Looking ahead, testing will continue to have a role, especially in protecting the most vulnerable.”
There are supporters in Northern Ireland of plans drawn up by those within Downing Street, such as DUP MP Sammy Wilson who wants a continuity between Northern Ireland and England’s legislation.
Mr. Wilson emphasised that the “Context has changed” and that test and trace was a solution for a time when there existed limited counter-measures for coronavirus. It resulted in over £60 million being spent on testing alone, sometimes for those who didn’t need it in the first place. The DUP MP marked the possibility of the end to free testing as the potential for a cash injection back into the health sector for more fruitful means.
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