Top Tyneside NHS figures have raised concerns about the impact of the loss of the soon-to-end testing program, with Covid-19 cases continuing to rise in the Northeast.
At a meeting of the Newcastle Gateshead NHS CCG, senior medics said they were concerned that the end of mass testing would leave us in the dark about the continued spread of Covid. As of April 1, the testing program will be dismantled across the country – and most people will no longer be able to pick up a free test.
There are some exceptions – for hospitalized patients who need a Covid test for clinical reasons, for people who qualify for Covid-19 treatments because they belong to particularly high-risk groups and for “individuals who live or work in closed high-risk environment”. The latter is understood to mean “some NHS, social care and prison institutions”, but there has been little more clarity.
Read more: Newcastle infectious disease doctor warns two years later ‘there is still an awful lot of Covid’
Speaking at the meeting, Lynn Wilson – who is the CCG director for Gateshead – said public health officials were “still very concerned about Covid”. Sheinaz Stansfield, managing partner at Oxford Terrace and Rawling Road Medical Practice, shared her concerns and said government guidance had not been adequate.
Ms Stansfield added: “It feels like we have conversations in a vacuum. We have partner meetings and we don’t really have the information we need to decide what to do and this is only going to get worse. Our employees are picking up Covid in social environments, sometimes they pick it up multiple times, and I wish we had some clearer guidance.”
Bill Cunliffe, a retired surgeon who is one of the CCG’s representatives from a hospital setting, added that it was important to point out the ways the lack of testing would put people at risk. He said: “It’s not so much the pure numbers, but the lack of ability to test and the lack of direction from the center.
“And I’m always ready to stand up and say, ‘Excuse me, but the Emperor seems to be robbed.’ The new policy is worrying and until good guidance comes in and we understand how it will all fit together it will be difficult.”
dr. Mark Dornan, the CCG’s clinical chair and a GP in Gateshead, added: “We are all trying to communicate back to the Central Government in as clear a way as possible that we want to move in a different direction on this.”
The Ministry of Health and Social Care set out the “next steps for living with Covid” on Tuesday evening. In a statement, the government highlighted how nationwide, despite the increase in Covid-19 cases due to the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, 55% of people hospitalized with Covid 19 infections “are not there with Covid-19 as their primary diagnosis”.
Health Minister Sajid Javid said: “Our plan to tackle Covid puts us at the forefront of learning to live with the virus. We have made tremendous progress but will remain able to respond to future threats, including possible variants.
“Vaccinations remain our best defense and we are now offering spring boosters to the elderly, nursing home residents and the most vulnerable – please come forward to protect yourself, your family and your community.”
Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said: “As we learn to live with Covid, we are focusing our testing facility on those at higher risk for serious impacts from the virus, while encouraging people to continue to follow simple steps to protect themselves and others.
“The pandemic is not over yet and how the virus will develop over time remains uncertain. Covid still poses a real risk to many of us, especially as the number of cases and hospitalizations increase. wear a mask in enclosed spaces, keep indoor spaces ventilated, and keep away from others if you have symptoms of respiratory disease, including Covid.
“Vaccination remains the best way to protect all of us from serious illness and hospitalization due to Covid infection. If you haven’t come forward for your primary or booster yet, I recommend you do so right away – the NHS vaccine program is there to help you and the sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner you and your family and friends are protected.”