Ministers are halting supplies of coronavirus tests to universities in England, in the first instance of ending the mass distribution of free lateral flow test kits before removing any remaining Covid restrictions.
Universities are currently advised that students and campus staff should take lateral flow testing (LFT) twice a week, even if they don’t have symptoms of coronavirus. But the contract to supply the kits, through NHS test and trace and the UK Health Security Agency, will be terminated on Friday and not renewed.
The Cabinet is reportedly split on Covid strategy and the future of testing, with the Treasury pushing to end mass testing as a cost-cutting measure, while Health Secretary Sajid Javid wants to keep some free tests for help community surveillance of the virus.
A government spokesperson said: “No decision has been taken on the provision of free tests. Everyone can continue to benefit from free tests, including university students and staff who can order on the website. from the government or their local pharmacy.
Higher education officials were not informed of the surprise decision until Wednesday. Universities also appear to have been told that they cannot distribute leftover stocks of LFT after the end of this week.
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors and headteachers, said: “The end of the legal agreement which allows universities to distribute lateral flow test kits to students and to staff prior to confirmation that all remaining Covid restrictions in England is difficult to understand.
“We are asking the government for urgent clarification that universities can continue to distribute test kits from the supplies they have on campus. This makes sense when universities have kits that would otherwise go to waste and as long as there is still demand from students and staff this term.
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, accused the government of “playing fast and loose” with the safety of staff and students on campus, and said the decision could jeopardize in-person teaching.
“This approach is reckless and can lead to Covid outbreaks going undetected until it is far too late to limit infections. It is also totally irresponsible for the government to make this change on such short notice,” Grady said.
“Ministers must explain how employers are supposed to keep campuses safe when testing is a key health and safety control measure. They must also pledge not to drop free PCR tests for symptomatic cases. University staff and students urgently need these assurances.
The government spokesperson said: ‘We continue to encourage people to use rapid tests when they need them.
The Guardian revealed this week that the Treasury is seeking to cut the coronavirus provision budget by up to 90%, including ending the distribution of LFTs for asymptomatic testing from March.