Some 200,000 children are off school in England due to coronavirus, the Education Secretary said, as he promised more details on rapid testing this week when universal free provision is stopped.
Nadhim Zahawi said further information about lateral flow tests will be set out on Friday, when mass free testing will end in England.
The Government has said free tests will only be made available to the most vulnerable but an education union has said removing free access when Covid-19 cases are high “feels irresponsible”, while a health expert labelled it “a disaster” for NHS workers.
There has been confusion within the NHS as to whether tests will remain free for staff, with the NHS Confederation saying workers may be forced to pay about £50 a month if they have to fund the mandatory tests themselves, as it called for clarity over the issue.
School leaders have also expressed concern over “worrying” reports of a recent rise in Covid cases in schools, warning that the issue could get worse when families have to pay for tests.
Around one in 16 people in private households in England – or 3.5 million people – are likely to have had Covid-19 in the week to March 19, according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures.
Mr Zahawi did not rule out more testing in schools when he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “We will say a bit more about testing on April 1 of course as to what the policy is.”
He said there are “around 200,000” children off school currently because of coronavirus.
“It has ticked up a little bit because infection rates are high but if we have not broken, we have weakened the link between infection rates and severe infection and hospitalisation because of the vaccination,” he said.
Mr Zahawi faced criticism from the Liberal Democrats, who claimed he is “in denial about the level of Covid infections in schools”.
The party’s education spokesperson Munira Wilson said: “This Government has let down and abandoned our children time and time again over the past two years and history looks doomed to repeat itself.
“It’s clear they have no plan for dealing with rising numbers of infections and absences.
“Schools deserve a cast-iron guarantee that they will be given the resources they need to ensure no child will miss out on learning.
“Government incompetence cannot be allowed to disrupt their education further than it already has.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Covid cases have been spiking again in many schools over the past week or so – in line with the rising numbers nationally. Removing free access to lateral flow tests at this point feels irresponsible.
“It will make tracking and controlling Covid almost impossible. There is a lot of anxiety from school leaders about what could happen once tests are unavailable.”
Ending free coronavirus testing for healthcare workers is “a disaster”, according to one health expert.
Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said it is “unfair, unkind and just not workable” to expect NHS staff to pay for their own tests.
Asked how serious the risk is to the NHS of ending free testing for healthcare workers, he told Times Radio: “It’s a disaster. It’s unfair, unkind and just not workable because, you know, there are people out there who, you know, all parts of the NHS, but imagine you’re working with very clinically vulnerable patients – it would be devastating to you and to them to imagine that you might infect them with something that might kill them.
“And the onus is on you to keep sourcing and paying for your own testing, because you want to do the right thing. I mean, how can that be OK?”