That is the call from the opposition Labour group on Lancashire County Council, which says that the authority should step in and fund the kits at least until schools break up for the summer.
It comes as a leading teaching union official in the county claims that the latest government advice as part of its “Living with Covid” strategy has caused confusion amongst parents – and is leading to “countless children” who are “visibly poorly” with Covid symptoms being sent into school regardless.
The Lancashire Post can also reveal that the number of patients with Covid who are in the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals has tripled in just under three weeks – and currently stands at 93.
However, the trust that runs the facilities was unable to advise how many within that total have been hospitalised as a direct result of the virus and how many tested positive while being treated for other complaints.
Across Lancashire, Covid case rates are rising in all districts, with week-on-week increases of between 20 and 77 percent – but the spikes are generally less sharp than they were earlier in March.
It is now a month since ministers ended the legal requirement for people who test positive for Covid to self-isolate – although they are still recommended to do so until 1st April.
From that date, anybody displaying Covid symptoms will simply be encouraged to “exercise personal responsibility” when deciding whether or not to leave their homes. Free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing will also end at that point for the general public, but some of those deemed most vulnerable to the virus will still be able to access testing if they have symptoms, as will social care staff.
Lancashire Labour group leader Azhar Ali has written to Conservative county council leader Phillippa Williamson warning that the “rampant” BA2 strain of the Omicron variant – which has driven surging infection rates nationwide – is a reminder that Covid is “still very infectious and killing people”.
He has called on County Hall to start funding lateral flow tests after a similar move by Portsmouth City Council last week. However, while that authority plans to supply five kits a month, County Cllr Ali told the Post that Lancashire should provide them in whatever quantities they are needed in order to help keep the vulnerable safe – and, in particular, to try to limit the spread through schools.
“People are already struggling with the cost of living and if they have to pay for tests – and maybe they have got a couple of kids – then it’s a lot of money and something that they aren’t going to be able to do.
“We have a duty of care around health and safety to make sure we do our best for people and this would at least give them the reassurance that they can still test free of charge.
“There is a long-term economic and social effect [to Covid infection], such as long Covid and the pressures on the NHS that could potentially come from it.
“Of course, we must get on with things and we have to be as independent as we can – but we should still be cautious and make sure that we’re still testing,” County Cllr Ali said.
From the start of next month, most people wanting to take a lateral flow test will have to buy one from a high-street pharmacy, where prices start at around £2 for a single kit.
Previous advice for secondary school pupils and all education staff to test themselves twice a week – irrespective of whether or not they were symptomatic – came to an end in most school settings when mandatory self-isolation was dropped last month.
However, Ian Watkinson, Lancashire’s representative on the executive of the National Education Union (NEU) – and chair of the organisation’s health and safety committee – says that the relaxation of mitigation measures in the classroom is once again leading to “massive disruption”.
He told the Post that the “Living with Covid” strategy was being heard by some people as “Covid is over” – and meant that youngsters with Covid symptoms were still heading into class.
“I think the message from government has been mixed – and some people genuinely aren’t sure what they should be doing.
“But the Omicron variant is absolutely rampant – loads of staff and kids have got Covid right now.
“Yet because free testing is ending, there [already] aren’t as many people doing it. But even given that, the numbers that are testing positive [seem to be] greater than they have ever been before – and there are also reinfections.
“It doesn’t seem like the biggest ask for the county council to look at providing free lateral flow tests by using part of the [Covid-related] funding from the government that they will have.
“As far as schools are concerned, they are still the main vectors of transmission and, of course, in primary schools, most kids still haven’t been vaccinated,” Mr. Watkinson said.
He condemned the removal of the national requirement for Covid to be explicitly considered in health and safety risk assessments from next month – and also criticised Lancashire’s latest public health campaign “Look out for Lancashire”, which advises people to take “sensible precautions” where they can in order to help the county to “live safely” with Covid and limit its spread.
Mr. Watkinson said that the message was “weak and not striking the right tone”.
A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said of the critique: “We welcome all feedback, but the messages are based on the best advice from Lancashire’s dedicated public health professionals.
“We’re grateful that the people of Lancashire are taking its message to heart and are looking out for each other.
“We are seeing cases rising and advising people to follow public health guidance.”
Regarding the call for County Hall to fund free lateral flow tests, the spokesperson added: "We do have some lateral flow tests available and are taking a risk-based approach about how they can best be used where free provision is not available from national stocks.
"Our priorities are: to enable visiting whilst managing incidents or outbreaks in care settings; to enable transportation of vulnerable residents; and to continue testing in special schools where there is a need. We have asked central government to make lateral flow tests available locally to help manage outbreaks and incidents.
"We know there have been representations made to central government to provide testing in schools and we await the national decision.
"The situation remains fluid, but is being carefully monitored by our public health experts and by councillors through the cross-party Lancashire Outbreak Engagement Board."
The number of patients in hospital with Covid across Lancashire has risen at all of the county’s NHS trusts since the start of the month up until the latest published statistics for 15th March.
The more up-to-date real-time figure of 93 for Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (LTH) – which operates the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals – was revealed at a meeting of the Central Lancashire clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) on Wednesday afternoon.
The Post understands that there is currently just one patient in each of the critical care and respiratory high care facilities at LTH as a result of Covid – a far lower proportion than before the vaccination rollout began, when it sometimes exceeded a third.
A spokesperson for the trust said that the current picture “highlights the importance of the vaccine in reducing the severity of the virus and we would encourage those eligible for the Spring booster to please book their fourth dose”.
While the trust was unable to confirm the Central Lancashire split between those Covid hospitalisations that were incidental and those that were as a consequence of the virus itself, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, this week suggested that, at a national level, around 60 percent of current Covid patients on the wards “are not there because of Covid”.
Spring booster jabs are available for the over-75s and anyone over 12 years of age and who has a weakened immune system.
LANCASHIRE’S COVID CASE LOAD
Weekly case numbers as of 18th March and the percentage increase on the previous seven-day timeframe:
Blackburn with Darwen – 618 – up 60.8 percent
Blackpool – 894 – up 25.4 percent
Burnley – 416 – up 77.8 percent
Chorley – 821 – up 62.9 percent
Fylde – 583 – up 28.4 percent
Hyndburn – 325 – up 45.7 percent
Lancaster – 1,326 – up 38.3 percent
Pendle – 302 – up 71.6 percent
Preston – 971 – up 48.0 percent
Ribble Valley – 349 – up 46.0 percent
Rossendale – 362 – up 74.9 percent
South Ribble – 821 – up 20.6 percent
West Lancashire – 887 – up 36.5 percent
Wyre – 870 – up 30.8 percent
LANCASHIRE PATIENTS IN HOSPITAL WITH COVID
Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – 78
East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust – 42
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust – 93
Southport and Ormskirk Hospitals NHS Trust – 41
University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust – 80
Source: gov.uk (patient numbers as at 15th March, except Lancashire Teaching Hospitals which refers to 23rd March)
LANCASHIRE COVID DEATHS
The number of deaths of residents whose death certificate mentions Covid-19 as one of the causes (week ending 11th March).
Blackburn with Darwen – 1
Blackpool – 5
Burnley – 1
Chorley – 1
Fylde – 1
Hyndburn – 0
Lancaster – 3
Pendle – 0
Preston – 2
Ribble Valley – 0
Rossendale – 0
South Ribble – 2
West Lancashire – 0
Wyre – 1