Minister insists lateral flow tests will stay free amid reports they may be limited
Lateral flow tests will remain free, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has insisted, amid criticism of 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 axed as they are limited to high-risk settings and for people with symptoms.
But he indicated support for reducing the isolation period from seven days to five, if it can be done safely, in order to reduce staffing pressures on the NHS and businesses.
The Sunday Times reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make the announcement on scaling back tests within weeks, while the NHS Test and Trace system could also be diminished.
Scotland’s 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.
But Mr Zahawi told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday, January 9: “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 we’ve got 425 million lateral flow tests 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 Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper pointed out that vaccines minister Maggie Throup confirmed early in December that “at a later stage” the “free universal provision of LFD (lateral flow device) tests will end”.
Ms Cooper said the “left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” as she warned that scrapping free tests “would plunge millions into a cost of living with Covid crisis”.
The criticism came 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.
Mr Zahawi also said the UK Health Security Agency will investigate whether the isolation period can be reduced to help alleviate staffing pressures.
“It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others,” he told Sky.
“But I would absolutely be driven by advice from the experts, the scientists, on whether we should move to five days from seven days. What you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.”
Mr Zahawi anticipated a “bumpy” two weeks as more school staff end up off work isolating for coronavirus as case rates rise when pupils return.
He told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show that staff absenteeism was at around 8.5% last week but “will increase, no doubt, because now schools are back we’re going to see an increase in infection rates”.
“I have to have contingency plans for 10, 15, 20, 25% absenteeism because Omicron is far more infectious,” he added.
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.