Lateral flow tests to stay free but Nadhim Zahawi won’t get off that easily

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Lateral flow tests will remain free, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has insisted. It comes amid criticism over suggestions that tests could be scaled back despite soaring coronavirus (Covid-19) cases.

The cabinet minister said he’s “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.

‘Utterly wrongheaded’

The Sunday Times reported that prime minister Boris Johnson would make the announcement within weeks. And the NHS Test and Trace system could also be scaled back. People have reacted with shock at the news given the skyrocketing number of daily confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon warned the move would be “utterly wrongheaded”. Meanwhile Labour said it would be the “wrong decision at the wrong time” while cases are so high.

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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.

Asked whether there are plans to stop lateral flow tests being free, he said: “Absolutely not”.

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

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. But the Sunday Times report suggested there are concerns in Whitehall over their cost.

‘Endemic’

But 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 in order to reduce staffing pressures on the NHS and businesses. However, he did not acknowledge the underfunding and lack of appropriate training bursaries and pay rises which have been instrumental in causing staff shortages.

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.

While it’s possible to put mitigations in place to try and ‘live with’ the virus more safely, of course the government is nowhere near that stage:

150,000 deaths and counting

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.

HEALTH Coronavirus Deaths
(PA Graphics)

Predictably, Zahawi’s remarks have received come criticism online:

Some also pointed out that the pandemic can’t be overcome without supporting global efforts:

Sturgeon questioned how the move in Westminster would affect funding for the “vital” tests in Scotland, adding: “Hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to ‘live with’ Covid.”

Meanwhile shadow health secretary Wes Streeting warned that charging for tests would hit families who are already facing a “cost-of-living crisis”.

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