All covid restrictions will end in England on Thursday and free mass testing will stop from April 1.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his plan on Monday living with covid (“Coexist with covid”) and told parliamentarians that the legal obligation to isolate those who have tested positive for the virus will be eliminated.
And starting April 1, free trial distribution will be targeted to the most vulnerable, Johnson said.
But the British Medical Association, a union for doctors, said the plan will not protect people most at risk from Covid.
Opposition parties, meanwhile, said the prime minister’s plan to come out of the pandemic is moving too fast and raised concerns about the curtailment of free tests.
Speaking at a news conference Monday night, Johnson said: “Today is not the day that we can declare victory over covid, because this virus is not going to go away, but it is the day when all the efforts of the last two years finally allow us to protect ourselves while we restore our freedoms in full.”
“After two of the darkest and bleakest years in our peacetime history, I believe this is a proud moment for our nation and a source of hope for all that we can accomplish in the years to come,” he added.
He said the nation has passed the peak of omicron, with a drop in cases and hospital admissions, and now the “transition back to normal” while maintaining contingencies to respond to a resurgence or new variant of the virus.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said the end of virus restrictions is the product of “gradual and steady change over a period of time”, adding: “This is not a sudden ‘everything stops’”.
The official added that the number of people infected with omicron is still “very high.”
Infection figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last week estimated that one in 20 people in England had covid.
Whitty indicated that the public health advice for people with covid will continue to be to self-isolate to prevent them from infecting others, as it would be for many other highly infectious diseases.
Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, warned that the virus will continue to evolve over the next two years and there is no guarantee that future variants will be less severe than omicron.
He argued that it is crucial that the nation maintain a surveillance system for the virus to monitor for new threats and the ability to rapidly “ramp up” measures again to protect the vulnerable.
What is changing in England?
from this monday February 21st: the government removes guidance for staff and students in most child care and education centers, which involved testing asymptomatic twice a week.
Starting Thursday, February 24:
- People who test positive for covid will no longer be legally required to self-isolate.
- But they will still be advised to stay home and avoid contact with others for at least five full days.
- Routine contact tracing will end, so fully vaccinated close contacts and those under the age of 18 will no longer be legally required to be tested daily for seven days.
- Self-isolation support payments of 500 pounds ($680) for low-income people who test positive for Covid will no longer be available.
- The covid provisions to increase statutory sick pay will apply for one more month.
- Free mass testing for symptomatic and asymptomatic for the general public will end and will instead target the most vulnerable.
- People with symptoms of covid will be asked to exercise personal responsibility in deciding to stay home; until then they are still advised to do so.
- The current government guidance on covid passports will end and will no longer recommend that venues use the covid pass.
Boris Johnson previously told MPs that ands time to move from government restrictions to a phase in which citizens exercise personal responsibility.
It is only because immunity levels are so high and deaths are now “below what would normally be expected for this time of year” that the government was able to lift restrictions, he explained.
Because omicron is less serious, testing on a “colossal scale” is less important and less valuable in preventing serious illness, he added.
will continue to be provided limited free lateral flow testing for the most vulnerable groupsThe prime minister said, and ministers will work with retailers to ensure everyone who wants a test can buy one.
The prime minister did not specify which groups of people will be considered “most vulnerable”.
To avoid stockpiling free lateral flow tests before April 1, people will only be able to request a box of tests every three days instead of every 24 hours.
Once the tests are no longer free, ministers hope a market for lateral flow tests will develop, with individual tests expected to cost a few pounds.
The reduction in testing comes after Johnson previously told the BBC that the government spent 2 billion pounds ($2.7 billion) on the testing system in January alone.
Johnson indicated that they will implement “vaccines and specific treatments” for the most vulnerableand that the government will follow the UK vaccine advisory body’s recommendation to offer an extra booster to those over 75 and the most vulnerable over 12 this spring.
He added that the government will remain strong in responding to outbreaks of the virus, for example through the Office for National Statistics Infection Surveillance Survey to track surges when they occur.
“An Ax to Try”
Analysis by Nick Triggle, BBC Health Correspondent
Ministers have taken an ax to the evidence, going further than many experts think they should have.
Several called for rapid lateral flow tests to be made available to older people and those with health problems, so they can have family and friends use them before visiting.
Instead, beyond social care staff, only those deemed at risk will have access to testing in the community, and only if they have symptoms.
The risk group has not been defined, but it is likely that it is the most vulnerable who will benefit from antiviral treatments to reduce the risk of needing hospitalization. This includes the severely immunocompromised. A healthy 80-year-old would not qualify.
These changes will go into effect on April 1, and by that time, infection levels could be at very low rates. The reduction may not seem that significant if that is the case.
But the big caveat is that the government will retain the ability to ramp up testing if circumstances demand it, either because infection rates worsen or a new variant emerges.
Johnson also promised that the UK government continueto working with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they decide how to carry out their own plans.
Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said free testing and self-isolation when people test positive are effective tools to contain the virus, explaining that the public health advice the Scottish government has received “no recommends eliminate these important interventions at this time”.
He called on the UK government to continue to provide “adequate” funding for all parties to do what they deem necessary to combat the virus.
Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said his department would “carefully consider” England’s plan, but no decisions have been made on changes to his country’s test-and-trace programme.
Labor leader Keir Starmer described the prime minister’s plan as a “half-hearted announcement of a government paralyzed by chaos and incompetence”.
He said that the prime minister’s strategy is not “a plan to live well with covid” and that it would leave the country in a vulnerable situation.
Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association council, said the strategy neglects some of the most vulnerable in society and, instead of giving people more freedom, is likely to cause “more uncertainty and anxiety”.
“Living with covid-19 should not mean ignoring the virus entirely, which in many ways the government’s plan in England seems to do,” he said.
Coronavirus in the UKSource: Gov.uk
nagpaul asked “urgent clarity” on testing for public health service workers to protect staff and patients and that “protections for the most vulnerable must be maintained, including the provision of improved masks and clear guidance for both patients and doctors” .
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said many figures in the British health service are “concerned about the potential impact of these decisions” and that it is “vital” that the government is ready to restore deleted surveillance and evidence systems if necessary.
The ministers must assess the impact of restricting access to free trialshe said, warning that there is a risk of “significantly exacerbating health inequalities.”
The charity Blood Cancer UK has accused the government of lifting the restrictions “without a plan to protect immunocompromised people” and warned that the move will leave many of them “feeling abandoned”.
He added that of the 500,000 severely immunosuppressed people in the UK, some 230,000 have leukaemia.
Plan B measures, introduced in December to stop the spread of the omicron variant, including a requirement to wear masks in public places and the use of covid passes for large events, were abolished in England last month.
Face masks remain a condition of travel on London’s transport network, but the British capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said on Monday that he hopes the rules will be lifted following the prime minister’s announcement.
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