Free lateral flow tests 'could be axed within weeks' according to reports

By Matt Jackson

Free lateral flow tests could be axed, according to reports in an English newspaper, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is told to prepare to "live with coronavirus".

A senior UK government source has reportedly told The Times there could be less testing with more reserve capacity able to be rolled-out if the number of infections begins to surge. More than £6bn has been spent on mass testing using the rapid turnaround lateral flow devices.

Lateral flow tests are currently provided to individuals at no charge in both England and Wales.

The Welsh Government have previously said the tests being used in Wales are part of its UK allocation of rapid test kits, which have been paid for by the UK government.

The UK government has said the tests are part of its NHS test and trace funding of £37bn over two years. It would need to be seen how the move would affect people in Wales if the UK government did decide to stop providing tests free of charge.

A new system, which the paper says could be unveiled within weeks, could mean free tests being provided only in high-risk settings such as care homes, hospitals and schools, and to people with symptoms.

Contact tracing by NHS Test and Trace would also be expected to be scaled back.

The source said: "I don’t think we are in a world where we can continue to hand out free lateral flow tests to everybody for evermore. It’s likely we will move to a scenario where there is less testing but where we have a capacity to ramp it up if necessary, such as in the winter.”

England's Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has already backed moves to reduce the isolation period from seven days to five days after a positive Covid test. It has only recently been reduced from 10 days to seven, with negative lateral flow tests on days six and seven.

Mr Zahawi said: "The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have said they want to review it, so we will stick to seven days but if they review it and say they will bring it down to five days that is even better for me, it’s even more helpful.”

Mr Zahawi says the country is “witnessing the transition of the virus from pandemic to endemic.”

And now reports suggest scientists say coronavirus is not going away as Britain attempted to "live with" the virus by unlocking in summer.

Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group, now says the Omicron variant could make Covid endemic.

He told Times Radio: “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. It’s very similar to the common cold that we’ve lived with for many years.

“We’re not quite there yet but possibly Omicron is the first ray of light there that suggests that may happen in the longer term. It is, of course, much more transmissible than Delta was, which is concerning, but much less severe.”

Senior Whitehall sources have now told The Times they believe the free universal lateral flow tests are not needed given the vaccine roll-out. They added: “Free universal testing isn’t sustainable or necessary given high vaccination levels.”

Currently families are able to order the tests online, with the public urged to undertake one at least twice a week.

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