LATERAL flow tests will remain free, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has insisted amid criticism of suggestions they could be scaled back despite soaring coronavirus cases.

The Cabinet minister said he is “puzzled” by a report suggesting that their universal availability could be axed as they are limited to high-risk settings and for people with symptoms.

But in Herefordshire, the rapid tests can be picked up from a variety of locations this week, with the infection rate at a record level.

In the week to January 4, the most recent figures available from the Government's coronavirus dashboard, Herefordshire's coronavirus infection rate was 1,487.5 cases per 100,000 people.

That was more than double the previous high of 668.3 cases per 100,000 in September 2021.

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.

“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.”

But Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper pointed out that vaccines minister Maggie Throup confirmed early in December that “at a later stage” the “free universal provision of LFD (lateral flow device) tests will end”.

Ms Cooper said the “left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” as she warned that scrapping free tests “would plunge millions into a cost of living with Covid crisis”.

In Herefordshire, lateral flow tests, designed for people without coronavirus symptoms, can be picked up from points across Herefordshire this week.

The teams will be in place until stock has run out.

Where the Herefordshire Council teams will be:

Monday, January 10

  • Co-op, Bromyard, from 10.30am
  • Morrisons, Leominster, from 10.30am

Tuesday, January 11

  • Morrisons, Ross-on-Wye, from 11.30am
  • Co-op, Kington, from midday

Wednesday, January 12

  • Market Fair, High Town, Hereford, from 10.30am
  • Market House, Ledbury, from midday

Thursday, January 13

  • Elgar House, Hereford, from 9am
  • Carrot and Wine Stores, Wormelow, from 9am

Friday, January 14

  • Market Fair, High Town, Hereford, from 10.30am 
  • Wellington Village Stores, from midday

Tests can also be ordered online here, or picked up at pharmacies in Herefordshire. 

If you are picking up a kit from a pharmacy, you now need to get a collection code here.

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 loved ones, particularly around Christmas.

But the Sunday Times report suggested there are concerns in Whitehall over their cost.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting warned that charging for tests would hit families who are already facing a “cost-of-living crisis”.

“Testing is absolutely crucial for keeping infections under control and avoiding the need for further restrictions that impact on our lives, livelihoods, and liberties,” he said.

“It’s penny wise and pound foolish.”

Confederation of British Industry chief economist Rain Newton-Smith said proposals to remove free tests now “make no economic sense”.

“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,” she said.