Michael Gove has refused to deny that free lateral flow tests could be phased out in the coming weeks, less than 24 hours after another minister told Sky News the government would “absolutely not” charge for the devices.
The housing secretary told Kay Burley that lateral flow tests will be free for “as long as we need them” but did not directly answer whether they could be phased out in the coming weeks.
He also told Sky News that the country is “moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with COVID” but that we are “not there yet”.
Mr Gove said it is “impossible to predict” for how long free lateral flow tests will be necessary.
Yesterday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday that the government has no plans to scale back free lateral flow tests to high risk settings.
Mr 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 “within weeks”.
“This is absolutely not where were are at,” he told Sky News.
Asked if there were any plans to stop free lateral flow tests, Mr Zahawi said “absolutely not”.
Moving to ‘living with COVID’
But when asked by Kay Burley on Monday for how long the devices will remain free for all, Mr Gove said: “It is the case that in this country lateral flows are free – unlike in many other jurisdictions – they are a vital tool in making sure that we can curb the spread of the infection and also that people who need to isolate do so.
“But, as you pointed out right at the beginning of our conversation, we are moving to a situation – we are not there yet – but we are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with COVID and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.
“But, it is absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet.
“And as the health secretary has reminded us there will be some difficult weeks ahead and that is why we all need to continue to test, continue – if we are positive – to isolate, and continue broadly to support the NHS as it goes through a challenging period but one in which the frontline professionals are doing an amazing job.”
Pressed once more on whether the government is considering phasing out lateral flow tests but not for the coming weeks, Mr Gove replied: “As the prime minister and others have said, we will do whatever it takes.”
Concerns regarding cost of testing system
The Sunday Times had reported the announcement 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.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said any plans to scrap free lateral flow tests would be “penny-wise and pound foolish”.
Later on Monday, the PM’s official spokesperson said lateral flow tests were a “vital line of defence” and would remain free for “as long as necessary”.
He told reporters the government’s COVID autumn and winter plan had set out that “at a later stage, as the government’s response to the virus changes, universal free provision of these tests will end and I think that’s what the public would expect”.
But he said it was “too early to say specifically when we will have moved from the point where we’ve got extremely high prevalence currently, and when it will be right to consider a different approach”.
Calls to cut isolation to five days
Mr Gove added that it would be for the prime minister and health secretary to decide whether to cut the period of COVID isolation to five days from seven.
On Sunday, Mr Zahawi told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips that he is in favour of reducing the coronavirus isolation period from seven days to five – provided the move is backed by officials – adding that the issue is something that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is looking at.
At the moment, people in England who test positive can end their isolation period if they receive a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven – with the tests taken 24 hours apart.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is among other ministers who are keen on the economic benefits of reducing the isolation period from seven to five days, according to the Daily Telegraph.
However, the prime minister is understood to be unlikely to set out further plans while cases remain high and the NHS strains under significant pressures.
On Sunday, Mr Johnson said: “The pressures on hospitals are clear. What we have got to do is give the NHS all the help we can through the next period.”