Leader - Covid policies must adapt with new data

Free lateral flow tests (LFTs) for coronavirus were set to be scrapped by the UK Government, it was reported yesterday, with kits made available only in high-risk settings and to those with symptoms.

UK Government Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC's Sophie Raworth he was "slightly puzzled" by a report that said free lateral flow tests were set to be axed. Photo: Jeff Overs/BBC/BBC/PA Wire

The move was swiftly condemned by critics including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who described it as “wrongheaded”. By lunchtime, UK Government Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi had dismissed the report, saying it had left him “slightly puzzled”.

A cynic, however, might ascribe the story to an exercise in government “kite-flying”, whereby a policy is suggested through the press in order that ministers may proceed based on how the proposal has been received.

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The kite may have been wound in but it did at least give a clear indication of the way the wind is blowing.

Mr Zahawi went on to state that the country is on the road “from pandemic to endemic”, before indicating support for cutting the isolation period from seven days to five in order to reduce staffing pressures on the NHS and businesses.

Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf responded by saying no such move was currently being considered north of the Border.

But the ground is clearly shifting in the response to the pandemic, driven by the latest data on vaccinations and the Omicron variant.

The evidence suggests Omicron, although highly transmissible, is far less likely to lead to hospital admissions and deaths than previous strains.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of almost two years of restrictions continue to bite.

Figures last week revealed footfall in Scotland’s shops fell by 22.8 per cent in December compared to the same month in 2019. The figure means Scotland saw the deepest decrease in footfall out of the four UK nations for the fifth consecutive month.

Axing free LFTs may be off the table for now but at some point policymakers will weigh public health benefits against economic cost. If current trends continue the tests may go the same way as furlough. Restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, isolation periods, and face coverings could follow.

Covid is here to stay and flexibility in adapting to new data will be key in the journey out of the pandemic.