'Utterly wrongheaded': Boris Johnson warned against scrapping free lateral flow tests

8 January 2022, 21:37 | Updated: 9 January 2022, 15:40

There is concern over Boris Johnson's reported plan to get rid of free lateral flow tests
There is concern over Boris Johnson's reported plan to get rid of free lateral flow tests. Picture: Alamy

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Boris Johnson has been warned against axing free lateral flow tests, with Nicola Sturgeon saying it would be an "utterly wrongheaded" approach to dealing with coronavirus.

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It comes after The Sunday Times reported the Government is planning to phase widespread free testing out over the next few weeks, as part of a strategy for the country to start "living with Covid".

The announcement, which could come within weeks, may include a scaling back of the NHS Test and Trace system, the paper reported.

Labour joined Scotland’s First Minister in urging the PM against the move amid reports tests could be limited to high-risk settings - such as care homes, hospitals and schools - and to people with symptoms.

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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".

"Hard to imagine much that would be less helpful to trying to 'live with' Covid," she tweeted.

She questioned what would happen to funding for UK nations for testing if the Westminster Government went ahead with the move, adding: "Testing so vital, we'd have to consider continued funding but it would then come from existing budgets."

The Department of Health and Social Care is yet to comment, but a government source disputed the report and said it was too early to say what the future holds for free lateral flows.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi denied the claims, telling LBC he "doesn't recognise" the reports.

He told Sky News earlier: "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."

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

Responding to the report, 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."

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.

Despite case rates hitting record highs after the emergence of Omicron, hospitalisation and deaths have not followed the same trajectory, with this being attributed to vaccination and the new strain being believed to be less deadly.

A government spokeswoman 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."