I am proud of the incredible testing and diagnostics capacity that has been built in the UK over the course of the pandemic, which is the biggest in Europe. Testing and tracing have been important throughout the pandemic, helping people to protect themselves and other by taking tests before meeting friends, family and colleagues and reducing the workforce impacts of isolation by allowing close contacts of positive cases to test daily rather than self-isolate.
This has, of course, come at significant cost to the taxpayer, with the Testing, Tracing and Isolation budget in 2020/21 exceeding that of the Home Office and in 2021/22 costing £15.7 billion. When the population did not have such a high level of protection from COVID-19 and the virus posed a more serious risk, I absolutely believe that this spending was necessary.
However, with the great success of the vaccination programme, access to new treatments, natural immunity and the increased understanding about how to manage risk from this virus, the population has stronger protection against COVID-19 than ever before. I believe now is the right time to change the focus of our response to the pandemic away from regulation and towards guidance and advice, while targeting protection at those who are most at-risk. As such, from 1 April, free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing provision will end in England. However, there will be some limited ongoing free symptomatic testing, including for a small number of at-risk groups and social care staff. More detail will be set out in due course, which I will of course be scrutinising closely.
I understand that the Government is working with retailers and pharmacies to help establish a private market in testing to ensure those who wish to purchase them can still do so.
In relation to care homes, I know that throughout the pandemic the Government has done everything it can to protect people receiving care and staff and it is vital that this continues. While the vast majority of people cared for in care homes and at home are vaccinated, the risk of transmission and hospitalisation from COVID-19 remains higher than in the general population. I am told that current protections in social care will remain, and the Government continues to review all COVID-19 measures for social care in line with the latest scientific advice. Further details of any changes will be provided in due course, and I await this with interest. I have ensured that ministers are aware of the concerns raised with me.
Finally, over 2 billion lateral flow tests have been provided across the UK since 2020. I am assured that UKHSA continues to have good stock levels and will manage these to provide flexibility in future. Ahead of the end of free universal testing in England, I understand that it will be necessary for UKHSA to cap the number of tests distributed each day to manage demand. Given that advice to test has and continues to reduce, the advice is that people should only order what they need.