'Absolutely' no plans to stop free lateral flow tests, says Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi

There are “absolutely” no plans to stop lateral flow tests being free, a Cabinet Minister has said, after reports that the public could have to start paying for them.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said he was “puzzled” by the suggestion that the tests could come with a price tag apart from in high-risk settings.

The Sunday Times reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would make the announcement on scaling back tests within weeks, while the NHS Test and Trace system could also be diminished.

But Mr 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.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi arrives at BBC Broadcasting House, London, to appear on BBC One's Sunday Morning programme (PA)

“For January alone we’ve got 425 million lateral flow tests coming in and they will continue to be available for free.

“I don’t really recognise where that story is coming from.”

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

As Omicron cases have remained high across the country in recent weeks, there have been knock on effects to public services, with thousands of staff needing to isolate at any one time.

Mr Zahawi acknowledged that schools are in for a “bumpy” period in the coming weeks, as teachers could face soaring case rates with pupils back in the classroom.

He told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show that staff absenteeism was at around 8.5% last week but “will increase, no doubt, because now schools are back we’re going to see an increase in infection rates”.

“I have to have contingency plans for 10, 15, 20, 25 per cent absenteeism because Omicron is far more infectious,” he added.

Mr 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 was the seventh to pass the milestone for officially recorded deaths, following the US, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru