Covid: No plan to end universal lateral flow tests says minister amid reports they may be limited

Credit: PA

Lateral flow tests will remain free, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has insisted amid criticism after suggestions they could be scaled back despite soaring coronavirus cases.

The Cabinet minister said he is “puzzled” by a report suggesting that their universal availability could be limited to high-risk settings, such as care homes, hospitals and schools, and for people with symptoms.

The Sunday Times reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make the announcement within weeks, while the NHS Test and Trace system could also be scaled back.

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned the move would be “utterly wrongheaded”, while Labour said it would be the “wrong decision at the wrong time” while cases are so high.

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But Mr Zahawi told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: “I saw that story this morning, which I was slightly puzzled by because I don’t recognise it at all. This is absolutely not where we are at.

“For January alone 425 million lateral flow tests (are) coming in and they will continue to be available for free.

“I don’t really recognise where that story is coming from.”

Asked whether there are plans to stop lateral flow tests being free, he said: “Absolutely not.”

But the report surfaced as the government seized on suggestions from scientists that the emergence of the seemingly less deadly Omicron strain is a step towards the virus becoming endemic, or regularly occurring, but easier to live with.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Mr Zahawi’s comments came after the number of people to have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive Covid test passed 150,000.

The country is the seventh to pass the milestone for officially recorded deaths, following the US, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru.

Rapid tests were made available to everyone in England, crucially including those without symptoms, in April.

They have been seen as a key way of suppressing the virus and have given confidence to people to safely mix with loved ones, particularly around Christmas.

But the Sunday Times report suggested there are concerns in Whitehall over their cost.

Ms Sturgeon questioned how the move in Westminster would affect funding for the “vital” tests in Scotland, adding: “Hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to ‘live with’ Covid.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting warned that charging for tests would hit families who are already facing a “cost-of-living crisis”.

“Testing is absolutely crucial for keeping infections under control and avoiding the need for further restrictions that impact on our lives, livelihoods, and liberties,” he said.

“It’s penny wise and pound foolish.”