The government has no plans to scale back free lateral flow tests to high risk settings, a cabinet minister has told Sky News.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi dismissed a report in the Sunday Times, saying he did “not recognise” the story that the tests could be limited to care homes, hospitals and schools, and people with symptoms.
“This is absolutely not where were are at,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday.
Asked if there were any plans to stop free lateral flow tests, Mr Zahawi said “absolutely not”.
The Sunday Times had reported the announcement, which could come “within weeks”, may also see the NHS Test and Trace system scaled back.
The newspaper had cited concerns in Whitehall over their costs, saying more than £6bn of public money has been spent on mass testing using the devices.
The free rapid tests were first made available to everyone in England – including those without symptoms – last April.
Following the report, the prime minister was warned against scaling back the tests by both the Labour Party and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
‘Testing so vital’
Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish government had not signed on to any plans.
“If UK government is really considering this (@scotgov certainly not signed up to it) it is utterly wrongheaded,” she tweeted.
“Hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to ‘live with’ COVID.”
She also questioned what would happen to funding for UK nations for testing if the Westminster government did axe free tests.
Meanwhile, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the plans would be “penny-wise and pound foolish”.
‘People simply won’t take them’
He said: “Testing is absolutely crucial for keeping infections under control and avoiding the need for further restrictions that impact on our lives, livelihoods, and liberties.
“This additional cost will also hit families at a time when they face a cost of living crisis. It means people simply won’t take them, putting others at risk.”
The party’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said “lateral flow tests have got to remain free whilst we have huge numbers of cases on a daily basis”.
Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme, she said the change would be “absolutely the wrong policies and the wrong approach at the wrong time”.
A government spokeswoman did not address whether access to free tests will be scaled back in the future, but instead said: “Everyone can continue to get free tests and we are continuing to encourage people to use rapid tests when they need them.
“Testing continues to play an important role in helping people live their day-to-day lives, keep businesses running and keep young people in school.”
Cases have hit record highs
It comes as the UK reported a further 146,390 new cases and 313 deaths on Sunday – although this is believed to be an underestimate.
Cases have hit record highs following the emergence of the new Omicron variant however, hospitalisations and deaths have not followed the same trajectory.
Professor Mike Tildesley, a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), said on Saturday that the variant is possibly the “first ray of light” in COVID-19 becoming endemic and easier to live with.
However, families have been urged to still get their children vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus and now half a million appointments have been made available to 12 to 15-year-olds across the country in January.
More than 1.4 million young people have already had their first dose since the vaccine was rolled out to this age group in September, with thousands getting jabbed every day.
However, there are still over one million young people who are yet to get their first dose.
All children aged 12 to 15 are also eligible for a second dose of vaccine if it has been more than 12 weeks since their first jab, and more than 50,000 will be invited for their second dose as they become eligible this week.