Addressing MPs and the public, Boris Johnson has laid out England’s plans for “living with Covid” as all legal restrictions are set to be scrapped.
Yesterday (21 February), the prime minister announced an end to all remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England from next week.
“It’s time we got our confidence back – we can rely on that sense of responsibility to one another,” he told MPs in the House of Commons. “Let us learn to live with this virus, and continue protecting ourselves and others, without restricting freedoms.”
Later, in a press briefing alongside chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty and chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance, Johnson shared that while Covid-19 had ‘not gone away,’ the country was able to now move from government regulations to personal responsibility.
But what will that look like, exactly? Here are the five things we learned from the latest ‘living with Covid’ strategy.
You will no longer be legally required to self-isolate after testing positive
The biggest change announced by the prime minister was an end to the legal requirement to self-isolate if you’ve tested positive for the virus.
Currently, if you test positive on either a PCR or lateral flow test, you must self-isolate for a full 10 days from the date your symptoms started.
However, from 24 February, this will no longer be the case.
Workers will not be required to tell their employer if they need to self-isolate, and the £500 quarantine support payments for those who are self-isolating and unable to work will end.
Free Covid-19 testing for members of the public will be scrapped
From 1 April, free lateral flow tests for members of the public will no longer be available on the NHS.
The prime minister said yesterday that testing had become “much less valuable” in restricting the spread of Covid, and said the £2bn-a-month cost of the system meant the government had to “scale back” what it could offer.
As widespread testing is reduced, free tests will still be made available to some of the most vulnerable groups – such as the over-80s and those with immuno-suppressing conditions – in response to symptoms.
However, NHS staff and patients and care system workers will receive free tests only if they develop symptoms of Covid-19 or if there is an outbreak which requires asymptomatic testing to be conducted.
Routine contact tracing will end
Thursday will also see the end of routine contact tracing, the NHS service which alerts any people who may have caught the virus from you if you test positive.
This means that, from 24 February, if you are alerted by NHS Test and Trace or the NHS Covid-19 app, you will no longer be advised to self-isolate or take daily tests.
Covid passports will only be recommended for international travel
The NHS Covid Pass shows your coronavirus vaccination details or test results, and is currently required for both international travel and to gain entry into events and venues that require proof of Covid-19 status in England, Wales or the Isle of Man.
However, from 1 April, Covid passports will no longer be recommended for use domestically within the UK as all legal restrictions come to an end.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic is “not over”
Following the prime minister’s announcements, the top scientific and medical advisers did warn that Covid can be expected to return in more virulent and dangerous forms.
Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street press conference that the Covid-19 pandemic was “not over” and urged people testing positive to continue to isolate.
“As we look at the next weeks, we still have high rates of Omicron and I would urge people in terms of public health advice, and this is very much the Government’s position, that people should still if they have Covid try to prevent other people getting it and that means self-isolating,” Whitty said at the briefing.
“It would have been the public health advice, and will be the public health advice, for multiple other diseases. If you had Norovirus we would give exactly the same public health advice. So this is standard public health advice for a significant and highly transmissible infection.”
The government’s plan has been met with widespread criticism, with the British Medical Association denouncing it as “premature”, amid warnings from health charities that it exposes more than half a million people with conditions affecting their immune systems to increased risk.
“Can we be clear? This is not ‘living with Covid’,” wrote palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke in response to the announcement.
“This will lead directly to the deaths of more immuno-compromised and disabled people. I care for such patients – triple-vaxxed yet dying in ICU in their 40s, 30s. Are their lives really worth nothing?”
“Facemasks, ventilation, test and trace and covid surveillance are NOT “shackles”. They are public protections,” added Dr Zubaida Haque, member of Independent SAGE, a group of scientists providing transparent advice during the Covid crisis.
“Infections and hospitalisations are still very high and the pandemic is far from over. ‘Living with Covid’ measures are about saving Johnson’s career, not public safety.”
Labour MP Zarah Sultana also accused Johnson of “putting himself before public health,” tweeting: “This isn’t about ‘living with Covid’. It’s about placating Tory backbenchers and saving Boris Johnson’s skin.”
However, the prime minister himself tweeted: “Today is not the day we can declare victory over Covid, because this virus is not going away.
But it is the day when all the efforts of the last two years finally enabled us to protect ourselves while restoring our liberties in full.”
For official guidance on England’s full Covid-19 restrictions, please visit gov.uk.