When the provision of free lateral flow tests ends tomorrow it will undoubtedly be annoying for everyone. Suddenly we’ll have to pay for something we’ve become accustomed to receiving for free. No one wants that. But for disabled people, who have already paid the highest costs in terms of both money and lives during the pandemic, this moment puts both our finances and health at risk.
Many disabled people who are vulnerable to Covid-19 have been using tests to keep themselves as safe as possible in what is, after all, still a pandemic. Whether it’s testing for personal assistants (who aren’t covered by the government’s commitment to keep providing free testing in care homes), or a friend testing before popping round your house, free LFTs have allowed some disabled people a little leeway to have a social life and feel safe when receiving vital care. I have started venturing out to events, but only ones where I know everyone must test beforehand. The overnight evaporation of this small safety net will force more vulnerable people back into semi-permanent lockdown.
There is a powerful and noxious myth that disabled people can just live in isolation “if they’re worried”. This belief is inherently ableist; it says that disabled people are not worthy of social lives or even leaving their homes. And it’s also patently untrue. We simply can’t live in lockdown forever. Just like everyone else, disabled people have kids and jobs and a food shop to do, all of which require interacting with other people who might now be carrying a deadly infectious disease.
So more vulnerable people will end up sick, with all the attendant risks of hospitalisation and long Covid. Even if you don’t care about disabled people’s right to exist in society and only care about the government’s bottom line, it should be obvious that these things will be more expensive to deal with than it would be to provide tests in the first place. Even the economic case for ending free testing is a false one.
But this shouldn’t be about the numbers. There is also a fairness argument here. Disabled people will be forced to buy more tests than the average non-disabled person, while at the same time being one of the groups most affected by the cost of living crisis. Essentially, people are being economically penalised for being disabled.
There’s a simple solution to this problem: continue to provide free tests to everyone who was eligible for priority vaccination. This works because it naturally includes vulnerable people as well as their households and the people who care for them. The NHS already knows who they are. This wouldn’t help us to see friends or go to events, but would at least go some way towards removing the financial strain of keeping safe with the people we interact with most. Yet despite the obvious benefits, we are unlikely to see this simple measure enacted until we acknowledge that disabled people have lives to lead.