Covid: Living with Covid plan will restore freedom, says Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson is due set out his plans to scrap all remaining Covid legal restrictions in England, including the requirement to isolate.
The prime minister is to meet the Cabinet in the morning before updating the Commons in the afternoon.
Mr Johnson said the end to restrictions will return people’s freedom and “mark a moment of pride as we begin to learn to live with Covid”.
Some experts urged caution and Labour questioned plans to reduce testing.
Speaking before Monday’s announcement, he said his plan for moving out of the pandemic would bring society “towards a return to normality” after “one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history”.
No 10 said the success of the Covid vaccination programme had put England in a “strong position to consider lifting the remain legal restrictions”.
It added the pandemic was “not over” and the plan for living with Covid would take a “cautious approach” which would retain “some surveillance systems and plans for contingency measures which can be stood up if needed to respond to new variants”.
“It does appear as if the government is trying to pretend that Covid doesn’t exist in the
day-to-day lives of so many people.”
A controversial call for government
Covid is no longer an exceptional threat. Despite the huge wave of infections, the numbers dying in recent months has been similar to what you would expect during a normal winter.
Most agree some scaling back is warranted, but it needs to be done carefully.
During the pandemic £37 billion has been set aside for test and trace. This is a huge sum – more than has been spent on GP care.
Mass PCR testing in the community is almost certain to go. But these gold standard tests will be kept in hospitals to diagnose patients who are seriously ill and to keep an eye out on variants.
Many believe the Office for National Statistics surveillance survey can be done on a smaller scale, but it is essential to have something to keep a check on how the virus is spreading.
Then there are rapid tests. They will be vital for high-risk settings such as care homes. But to what extent should the government make them available to the wider public so they can test themselves when mixing with vulnerable friends and family? That’s the really difficult and controversial call.
Read more analysis here.
Just over 91% of people in the UK aged 12 and over have had a first dose of a vaccine, 85% a second jab, and 66% a booster or a third dose, according to official data. which has been collated daily since the vaccine rollout began in December 2020.
The government has announced it will offer a low-dose Covid vaccine to children aged between five and 11 in England during April. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have also said they will be offering young children the same vaccine.
The prime minister’s announcement will come a day after Buckingham Palace revealed the Queen, 95, had tested positive for Covid.
The monarch was said to be experiencing “mild cold-like symptoms” but expected to continue “light duties” at Windsor over the coming week.
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The legal requirement to self-isolate for a fixed period after testing positive in England has been in place ever since mass testing was rolled out. Before that, most Covid testing was limited to people as they arrived in hospital with symptoms, so self-isolation was not an issue.
Currently positive or asymptomatic people have to isolate for up to 10 days, but can end their isolation earlier if they register negative lateral flow tests on both days five and six.
Mr Johnson said on Sunday that Covid testing would take place at a “much lower level” after revealing £2bn was spent on the system in January alone.
Community PCR testing for people with symptoms was expected to stop under the new plan, but it is unclear whether the availability of free lateral flow tests will be reduced.
The plans would also see councils in England become responsible for manging Covid outbreaks using existing powers.
The Office for National Statistics infection survey, which randomly tests a sample of the population, is also expected to be replaced with a slimmed down surveillance programme.
The expected axing of remaining virus restrictions is likely to appeal to some backbench MPs who had been critical of retaining any measures after the end of the third England-wide lockdown last July.
Last year, Mr Johnson faced the largest backbench rebellion of his premiership when nearly 100 Tory MPs voted against plans for Covid passes in England.
On Sunday, the UK recorded another 25,696 new infections and a further 74 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test – although Sunday figures do tend to be among the lowest of any typical week.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said he was “particularly concerned” about the end of free testing saying the decision was “like being 2-1 up with 10 minutes left of play and subbing your best defender”, adding: “We are not out of the woods yet”.
Some scientists, health leaders and charities helping vulnerable people have also voiced concern at the plans to lift all legal restrictions.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association, said infections need to fall further before the rules were relaxed and called on ministers to release data to support their decision.
“It does appear as if the government is trying to pretend that Covid doesn’t exist in the day-to-day lives of so many people,” he told the BBC, suggesting it should stick to the original plan to keep the rules in place until the end of March.
Plan B measures – introduced in December to stem the spread of the Omicron variant – including the requirement to wear masks in public places and the use of Covid passes for large events, were abolished in England last month.
Throughout the pandemic, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have moved at different speeds in introducing or relaxing restrictions.
In Northern Ireland, all remaining Covid measures – such as Covid certificates in nightclubs, face coverings, and limits on gatherings in homes – stopped being legally binding on Tuesday.
Wales is currently at alert level zero, its lowest level of Covid rules.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will update MSPs on the pandemic on Tuesday. Legislation covering face coverings and vaccine passports had been due to expire next Monday but earlier this month ministers extended it for another six months.