Despite hundreds of deaths per day, Boris Johnson announced his plan to ‘live with Covid’ in England this week.
Mandatory self-isolation is being axed from Thursday, £500 isolation payments and Day One sick pay will go, and free tests will be axed from April 1 – with a 72-hour limit already in place to stop stockpiling.
The Prime Minister said testing, tracing and isolation cost £2bn in January alone adding: “Those who would wait for a total end to this war… would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come.”
But the SNP said he was “scrambling to save his own skin” from Tory MPs angry about Partygate, while Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “This is a half-baked announcement from a Government paralysed by chaos and incompetence.
“It is not a plan to live well with Covid.”
Phillip Anderson, Head of Policy at the MS Society, warned over 500,000 immunocompromised people do not know how they “can live safely alongside the virus”.
Lobby Akinnola, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “People will die directly because of the decision to scrap free testing, and those deaths are avoidable. Just as the Government was late starting testing, costing thousands of lives, they are going to be too early finishing it, with the same consequence.”
The Scottish and Welsh governments are furious as No10 confirmed neither they, nor the NHS in England, will get new money for testing beyond April.
The refusal to give any extra money prompted a last-minute delay to the plan after a row at the highest levels of government.
Here are the plans due to come into force on Thursday – plus a look into the future.
Plans taking effect already or on Thursday
Testing ends in schools
England’s guidance for staff and students in schools to do regular lateral flow testing is being removed immediately.
They may remain for some settings like special schools but details were not immediately available.
Guidance previously said: “Staff and secondary school pupils should continue to test twice weekly at home, with lateral flow device (LFD) test kits, 3-4 days apart. Testing remains voluntary but is strongly encouraged.”
Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)
Limit on how many tests you can get
As of this week you can no longer get more than one box of lateral flow tests in a 72-hour period.
It was previously a 24 hour period. This is to stop a rush of people stockpiling them before April 1, when free tests end (see below).
Self-isolation laws scrapped
Mandatory Covid self-isolation in England are scrapped – even if you have the virus – from 12.01am on Thursday 24 February.
The decision ends almost exactly two years of legally-enforced isolation for people who test positive. The legal obligation to tell your employer if you have to self-isolate will also end.
But adults and children will still be advised to stay at home if they test positive.
Between Thursday and the end of March, you’ll be advised to isolate for five days as long as you test negative twice, 24 hours apart at the end of that period – as is the case now. New advice (not written yet) will apply from April 1.
That raises ethical dilemmas about whether to go to work and put others at risk, especially as you can no longer claim a £500 isolation payment or sick pay from day one (see below).
Despite scrapping legal isolation, No10 earlier said: “We’re not saying isolation is pointless. We’d expect anyone with an infectious disease to take steps not to spread that disease further – a colleague at work with flu, for example.”
Close contacts no longer have to test or isolate
The government will no longer ask vaccinated or child contacts of Covid cases in England to test themselves for 7 days.
It will also remove the legal requirement for unvaccinated close contacts to self isolate, all from 12.01am on Thursday.
Mask rules scrapped on London transport
Public transport users in London will no longer be required to wear face masks from Thursday.
Transport for London (TfL) announced that face coverings will stop being a condition of carriage following the “shift in the Government’s approach” towards living with coronavirus.
It added that “decreasing infection rates in London” were also a factor in its decision.
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The Government scrapped the requirement for people in England to wear face coverings on public transport on January 27 but TfL kept the rule on its services.
Despite face coverings being dropped as a condition of carriage, TfL said it “strongly encourages” passengers to continue to wear them to “keep each other as safe as possible”.
£500 self-isolation payment scrapped
The £500 self-isolation payment for poor workers with Covid will end from 12.01am on Thursday.
The Test and Trace Support Payment was introduced in September 2020 to help low-wage workers afford to self-isolate for up to 14 days. Unions and Labour are worried its removal will force people to go to work, putting their colleagues at risk of infection.
The medicine delivery service will no longer be available. It was for people who were self-isolating to get prescription medication, by calling their local pharmacy or dispensing doctor.
It was already a low-key service, described by the government as a “last resort” with patients told to rely on friends, family and volunteers if they possibly could.
Routine contact-tracing and council powers end
Routine contact-tracing will end in England as the UK’s infrastructure for dealing with Covid is wound down.
So will a set of domestic laws – the Health Protection (No3) regulations – which gave councils powers to enact closures in their area.
Changes coming into force in the future
March 24: Sick pay and ESA from day one will end
People who fall ill with Covid will no longer be eligible for immediate ‘Day One’ sick pay from March 24.
The law will return to how it was before Covid, where you don’t get SSP for the first three days you’re ill and only get it from Day Four.
The same will happen to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which will return from Day One to Day Eight. People will no longer be eligible for ESA if isolating due to Covid.
It’s despite widespread calls for the Government to boost statutory sick pay – which is currently £96.35-a-week – so those struggling financially are not tempted to go back to work.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government is creating needless hardship and taking a sledgehammer to public health. The failure to provide decent sick pay to all – from the first day of illness – is reckless and self-defeating.”
Dan Shears of the GMB union said: “Today’s nonsensical announcement guarantees workers will attend the workplace with Covid. Restoring the three day limit is an act of national self-sabotage.”
April 1: Free lateral flow tests for the general public will end
Taxpayer-funded lateral flow tests will be scrapped for almost everyone on April 1, and people will have to pay. Boots plans to charge £12 for each box of five.
No10 has said “spending £2bn a month on free tests is not an effective use of taxpayers’ money at this point”. Downing Street said the end to free testing from April 1 will include people visiting care homes.
This has prompted a furious row with Labour, some medics and the Scottish and Welsh governments – which will get no new money if they want to continue free tests.
Asymptomatic tests for NHS workers will be made available but not routinely, only as a “surge” effort where there’s an outbreak. But they will be available for care home residents. Exact lists of those eligible are being drawn up.
UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said: “The government has taken leave of its senses. Ditching every last Covid safety rule while thousands are still catching the virus every day is irresponsible.
“Ending free tests for the public is a foolish move. Most people will simply stop testing because they can’t afford to check their Covid status.”
Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
April 1: Free PCR tests will end for the vast majority
The capacity to do hundreds of thousands of ‘gold standard’ PCR tests a day will be wound down dramatically from April 1 in England.
You’ll no longer be able to order a free PCR if you have symptoms and go to a walk-in or drive-through centre, or get it in the post.
There will be some exceptions to this, including the over-80s, the immunosuppressed, and patients on NHS wards. Exact lists of those eligible are still being drawn up.
Scientists have raised the alarm about ending these free tests, with reports suggesting they could cost £100 each privately.
Some of the UK’s lab capacity for PCR tests will be maintained, but not all of it. UKHSA are determining precisely what right level is, to ensure there’s enough to scale up if there’s a new variant.
The network of testing centres is already being scaled back and will continue to be reduced.
April 1: New guidance for workplaces and Covid passes wound down
The legal need for firms to consider Covid-19 in risk assessments will be removed, except if – for example – they are a lab that handles the virus.
The Government will replace the existing set of ‘Working Safely’ guidance with new public health guidance.
The plan says: “Employers should continue to consider the needs of employees at greater risk from COVID-19, including those whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
“The Government will consult with employers and businesses to ensure guidance continues to support them to manage the risk of COVID-19 in workplaces.”
The plan adds: “From 1 April, the Government will remove the current guidance on domestic voluntary COVID-status certification and will no longer recommend that certain venues use the NHS COVID Pass.
“The NHS COVID Pass will remain available within the NHS App for a limited period.”
People will continue to be able to access their vaccination status for international travel.
April: Hotel quarantine infrastructure shut down
The UK’s Covid travel ‘red list’ was wiped clean in December after ministers realised it was pointless trying to keep Omicron out.
But the ability to force people into £2,285-a-night hotel quarantine was kept in place – until now.
The living with Covid plan reveals it will be permanently axed next month, and travellers will instead be told to isolate at home if there is a new variant.
The plan says: “The infrastructure for hotel quarantine will be fully stood down from the end of March.
“The Government is developing options to increase compliance with home isolation in its place should quarantine measures need to be reintroduced.”
From Spring: A fourth dose of vaccine for over-75s and the vulnerable
People over 75 and the clinically vulnerable will be offered another Covid jab from the Spring.
A second booster jab has been recommended for over-75s by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which applies to around 7.2 million people.
It will also be offered to around 500,000 immunosuppressed people, some of whom have already had a third dose and a booster.
Anyone eligible can come forward to get another vaccine regardless of whether they have had three of four doses – as long as there has been a six month gap since their last jab.
Vaccine experts are also planning for a wider booster programme for more of the population in the autumn.
The JCVI said it will confirm which sections of the population would qualify for this nearer the time.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has accepted the recommendations for fourth doses, which is a “precautionary strategy to maintain high levels of immunity”.
The extra spring dose is advised around six months after the last vaccine dose for over-75s, those living in an elderly care home and anyone aged over 12 who is immunosuppressed.
From April: Vaccines for all children over five
All children over five will be able to get vaccinated against Covid-19 from April.
The “non-urgent offer” to the parents of nearly six million 5-11 year olds was confirmed by the Government moments after advice issued by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Two smaller doses of the Pfizer jab, 12 weeks apart, will be available to this age group to help control future Covid waves after Covid curbs have been lifted.
It is understood there are no plans for a major publicity drive to encourage this age group to be vaccinated and it will be left very much up to parents to decide.
It’s understood a rollout for over-5s will be less urgent than previous vaccine drives, due to the very low risk Covid poses to younger kids. The idea is that ordinary NHS care shouldn’t be interrupted to give kids the jab, like it was for adults.
All children over 12 have been able to get the Pfizer Covid jab since September last year.
Currently, only the most vulnerable kids aged 5 to 11 are eligible. They are offered two jabs but at a lower dose than for adults – 10 micrograms instead of 30.
Staying in place – for now
Covid travel rules
Fully-vaccinated people entering the UK do not need to take any Covid tests, under changes that happened on February 11.
But they still need to fill in a Passenger Locator Form – albeit a ‘simplified’ one – and no further changes have been announced today.
It’s understood the Department for Transport was pressing to further simplify the Passenger Locator Form – or get rid of it completely. But this has not yet come to pass.
Meanwhile, unvaccinated people still need to take one pre-departure test and one post-arrival test before entering the UK. It’s understood this rule will stay for the foreseeable future and no changes to it are due this week.
There will be a review of these rules before Easter.
Surveillance and surge powers
Officials said the government will maintain strong domestic surveillance, including the ONS Covid infection survey to spot new variants, and the Siren and Vivaldi studies.
There will also be measures to ramp up testing in the NHS if needed in future. SAGE experts have already warned a new variant could be more deadly than the original form of Covid – rather than less deadly, like Omicron.