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Lateral flow test kits for Covid to remain free says Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, as cases soar

Zahawi said ‘for January alone 425 million lateral flow tests are coming in and they will continue to be available for free’

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 axed as they are limited to high-risk settings and for people with symptoms.

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Rapid tests were made available to everyone in England, crucially including those without symptoms, in April 2021.

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.

The ‘wrong decision at the wrong time’

But the Sunday Times report suggested there are concerns in Whitehall over their cost, and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make an announcement within weeks, while the NHS Test and Trace system could also be scaled back.

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

But 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.”

Isolation period could be reduced further

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.

Zahawi expressed 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.

He said the UK Health Security Agency will investigate whether it can be done, telling Sky: “It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others.

“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.”

He added: “I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic, and then deal with this however long it remains with us, whether that’s five, six, seven, 10 years.”

UK reaches 150,000 Covid-19 deaths

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.

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