Free lateral flow tests are going to be available “for as long as is necessary,” prime minister Boris Johnson has said despite reports he was considering axing them for all but those in high-risk settings.
Speaking during a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, Mr Johnson said testing remained one of the most important lines of defence against the spread of the virus.
His comments come after The Sunday Times reported universal free lateral flow tests may be scaled back and could be limited to key workers, such as those in care homes, hospitals and schools – and to people with symptoms.
However, the prime minister's official spokesperson confirmed universal free provision lateral flow tests will end as part of the government’s Covid autumn and winter plan, which will be set out "at a later stage".
Mr Johnson also confirmed ministers are considering reducing the self-isolation period for fully vaccinated people who test positive for Covid.
Why are scientists split over what the self-isolation period should be? ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan explains
Over the weekend, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi become the first government minister to publicly support the reduction of the Covid isolation period from seven to five days.
Following the Prime Minister confirming he was exploring cutting the time to five days from seven, his official spokesman said “if it is possible to go further, then we will do so” in reducing the time those who test positive for Covid have to spend in isolation.
“You’ll appreciate Omicron being a relatively new variant, we get more information fairly regularly so you can expect certainly UKHSA (UK Health Security Agency) to lead that work, working with the Covid taskforce which is based in the Cabinet Office, will continue to look at the evidence for what is the right period of isolation," Downing Street said on Monday.
He said: “Of course as the Prime Minister said, if it is possible to go further then we will do so.”
And he added: “If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly but it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing. We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.”
Speaking on Monday, Mr Johnson said: “We are going to have to make sure we continue to use testing as one of our most important lines of defence for as long as is necessary.”
He continued to urge people to come forward for a Covid booster jab.
“The other line of defence in addition to testing is of course getting vaccinated. The boosters are going well. We have now done 36 million boosters – 90% of people over 50 – but clearly there is an opportunity for people who have not been boosted," he said.
He continued: “There’s a similar argument to be had about the quarantine period – whether to come down from seven days to five days.
“The thing to do is to look at the science. We are looking at that and we will act according to the science.”
"I do think it is the case that there are going to be some very tough weeks ahead for the NHS" - Michael Gove says the peak of the UK's Omicron wave is still to come
Speaking to ITV News, Levelling up secretary, Michael Gove, said the government were reviewing a reduction in the isolation period, but said a "balance" was needed to ensure shortening this did not risk spreading the virus.
"We need to keep these things on review. I think all of us want to make sure that people isolate for the shortest possible period, so they can be back on either on the frontline as workers or going about their normal daily lives.
"But we need to balance that with the need to ensure that people aren't in a position where they're infecting others when they return back to work. So we keep these things constantly under review. Nobody wants to keep people at home for a moment longer than is necessary. But we also need to ensure we're doing everything possible to relieve the pressure on the NHS."
Mr Gove said it was likely the UK was not past the peak of the Omicron wave.
"I do think it is the case that there are going to be some very tough weeks ahead for the NHS and I want to thank those working on the frontline who are doing amazing things," he said.