Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that there are “absolutely not” plans to end free testing for coronavirus, following reports that Boris Johnson was planning to introduce charges for lateral flow kits.
The government is facing calls to commit to keeping the tests free for as long as people are self-isolating, after reports that they could be withdrawn sparked widespread alarm.
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon warned it would be an “utterly wrongheaded” move, while Labour said it would be “the wrong decision at the wrong time”.
And the CBI said that moving away from free testing now would make “no economic sense” because of its importance in keeping the country open for business.
The Sunday Times reported that Mr Johnson could announce within weeks that free tests were being limited to high-risk settings – such as care homes, hospitals and schools – and to people with symptoms. The paper said that the NHS Test and Trace system could also be scaled back.
It cited concerns over the cost of the provision of free testing, which has already soaked up £6bn of public money.
But Downing Street sources dismissed the report as “incorrect”, saying it was too early to say what the future holds for free lateral flows.
“We haven’t made any decisions about the future of testing, and it’s far too early to have done so given we are in the middle of an Omicron wave,” said a No 10 source.
And Mr Zahawi told Sky News there were “absolutely not” any plans to end free lateral flow tests.
“I don’t recognise that at all,” said Mr Zahawi. “This is absolutely not where we are at.”
Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish government had not signed up to the move, but if Mr Johnson was “really considering this” it would be “utterly wrongheaded”. If funding for free tests was withdrawn by central government, Scotland would have to consider how it could continue to pay for them, she said.
It was “hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to ‘live with’ Covid”, she said.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “This would be the wrong decision at the wrong time.
“Testing is absolutely crucial for keeping infections under control and avoiding the need for further restrictions that impact on our lives, livelihoods, and liberties.”
And Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Now is not the time to throw in the towel in the fight against Covid. The government must guarantee free lateral flow tests for as long as they are asking people to self-isolate.”
CBI chief economist Rain Newton said: “Free lateral flow tests are a vital weapon in the UK’s Covid defences – they are central to keeping the economy open and allowing the UK to live confidently with the virus. Proposals to remove them now make no economic sense.”
The 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 their loved ones, particularly around Christmas as cases of the Omicron soared.
But the Sunday Times report suggested there is concerns in Whitehall over their costs.
A government spokesperson did not address whether access to free tests will be scaled back in the future, and 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.”
Despite case rates hitting record highs after the emergence of Omicron, admissions to hospital and deaths have not followed the same trajectory, with this being attributed to vaccination and the new strain being believed to be less deadly.
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.
“The thing that might happen in the future is you may see the emergence of a new variant that is less severe and, ultimately, in the long term, what happens is Covid becomes endemic and you have a less severe version,” he told Times Radio.
“It’s very similar to the common cold that we’ve lived with for many years.”