Ministers are “absolutely not” planning to scrap free rapid Covid tests, amid reports the government will start charging for them in England in the next few weeks.
The Sunday Times reported free lateral flow tests (LFTs) could be limited to high-risk settings – such as care homes, hospitals and schools – and to people with symptoms.
But Nadhim Zahawi emphatically denied the suggestions, telling Sky News he was “puzzled by the reports”.
“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,” the education secretary said. “On the contrary … for January alone we’ve got 425m lateral flow tests coming in and they’ll continue to be available for free.”
He added: “Because we have three lines of defence – the booster, vaccination if you haven’t been vaccinated, testing and antivirals – all those three things. I don’t really know where that story has come from.”
Pressed on whether the government had plans to scrap the free tests, he said: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.”
However, Zahawi acknowledged it “would certainly help” to cut the self-isolation period from seven days to five days – but added he would “defer to the scientific advice on this”.
He added: “It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others but I would absolutely be driven by the advice from the experts, the scientists on whether we should move to five days from seven days otherwise what you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.”
The move to further cut the self-isolation period has been mooted in the past fortnight, but experts fear up to 30% of those released on day five may still be infectious. The US allows people to leave the house after five days, but citizens only have to start isolating after testing positive rather than from their first symptoms.
The reports on LFTs were met with instant disapproval from opposition politicians including Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
She wrote on Twitter: “If UK government is really considering this (Scottish government certainly not signed up to it) it is utterly wrongheaded.
“Hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to ‘live with’ Covid.”
Sturgeon added that testing was “vital” and the Scottish government would have to consider continued funding from its existing budgets, and raised the prospects of such a move affecting the way public expenditure was allocated to devolved nations.
The Scottish government accesses lateral flow tests that are procured by the UK government on behalf of all four countries, and it pays for them via funding arrangements as part of the UK-wide national testing programme.
Labour joined Sturgeon in urging the prime minister against the move. The 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.
“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.
“It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Government sources have disputed the report and said it was too early to say what the future held for free lateral flow tests.
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 Omicron soared.
But the Sunday Times report suggested there were concerns in Whitehall over their cost.
A government spokesperson did not address whether access to free tests would be scaled back in the future, but 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.”
The reports came as official figures showed more than 150,000 people have now died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
With a total of 150,057 deaths by that way of measuring, the UK became the seventh country to pass the milestone, after the US, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru.
Separate figures from the Office for National Statistics show there have been 174,000 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.