Published by BBC NEWS - 22nd February 2022

A shopper wearing a protective face mask walks on Oxford Street, as rules on wearing face coverings in some settings in England are relaxed, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London

Image source, Reuters

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has insisted the time is right to end all Covid restrictions and free mass testing in England.

All rules including the legal duty to self-isolate will end this week – and free tests will stop for most in April.

Mr Javid hailed it as a “historic moment” but warned we must be ready for more variants in the coming years.

But doctors, opposition parties and charities representing vulnerable people have criticised the changes.

School leaders have also said scrapping tests in schools – which came into force immediately on Monday – may cause more disruption to pupils.

The rest of the UK has also not yet chosen to follow England’s plan – with Scotland saying its public health advice did not recommend doing so, while Wales said scrapping free tests was reckless.

In a press conference on Monday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Covid was “not going away” – but the UK had passed the peak of Omicron with cases and hospital admissions both falling.

One-in-22 people in the UK had Covid last week, according to the latest Office for National Statistics infection survey – and a further 38,000 UK cases were announced on Monday.

Asked on BBC Breakfast whether it was the right time to change the rules, Mr Javid replied: “Yes it is.”

“Yesterday was a historic day in our fight against this pandemic,” he said – but warned: “Of course this virus is still out there. We might want to be done with it but it’s certainly not done with us.”

It is likely that new variants will emerge over the next couple of years, Mr Javid said, adding: “We can’t say at this stage whether they will be dangerous or not, but we have to be ready for that.”

Mr Javid also defended scrapping free tests, saying it did not make sense to continue them indefinitely.

“Testing will be targeted in the areas where it makes most sense,” he said. “And that will be vulnerable settings that includes care homes and NHS settings and also vulnerable people.”

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What is changing in England?

People in masks walking in London

Image source, EPA

From 21 February: the government is dropping guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing

From Thursday 24 February:

  • People who test positive for Covid will no longer be legally required to self-isolate
  • But they will still be advised to stay at 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 18 will no longer be legally required to test daily for seven days
  • The £500 self-isolation support payment for people on low incomes who test positive for Covid will no longer be available
  • Covid provisions for increased statutory sick pay will apply for a further month

From 1 April:

  • Free mass symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public will end, and will instead be targeted towards the most vulnerable
  • People with Covid symptoms will be asked to exercise personal responsibility when deciding whether to stay at home – until then they are still advised to do so
  • Current government guidance on Covid passports will end and it will no longer recommend venues use the NHS Covid pass

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Asked about whether NHS staff will also get free tests – after calls for clarity from doctors and medical groups – Mr Javid said they would.

But he said it would be a decision for the NHS, suggesting the funding would need to come out of existing NHS budgets.

There had been a row within government over whether any extra cash was available for future testing. Asked about this, Mr Javid told the BBC there had been a “debate” but the cabinet had came to an agreement.

‘Illogical’

The government’s plan was met with criticism from a range of groups after it was announced – with many saying it was too soon.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it would leave the nation “vulnerable”.

Sir Keir said while the country needed to move on from coronavirus, it was “a half-baked announcement from a government paralysed by chaos and incompetence. It is not a plan to live well with Covid”.

Doctors’ union the British Medical Association said without free testing, people will not be able to make a judgement call over whether to isolate.

“Providing free tests to clinically vulnerable people – and only once they develop symptoms and are potentially very unwell – but not providing any free tests to friends or family who come into contact with them is completely illogical, as the priority should be protecting them from infection in the first place,” the BMA said.

Public health bosses in Lancashire have also warned the government is moving too fast, and urged people to continue with precautions.

Unions representing teachers also warned it could cause more disruption to pupils, or create conflict between schools and parents. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the announcement felt like a “headlong rush”, not a “sensibly phased approach”.

Several charities representing the 500,000 severely immunocompromised people in the UK also criticised the plan.

Blood Cancer UK warned that the plan “will cause huge anxiety among immunocompromised people and leave many of them feeling abandoned”, while the MS Society said the scrapping of free universal testing is “not only reckless but dangerous”.

And medically vulnerable people themselves have said it now feels more dangerous to leave their homes.

Others in the rest of the UK also did not react with enthusiasm to England’s plan:

  • Scottish health secretary Humza Yousaf said the public health advice the Scottish government had received did not advise ending free tests or self-isolation. He called for the UK government to continue supplying “adequate” funding for all parts of the UK to do what they deemed necessary to tackle the virus
  • Welsh ministers said it was “reckless” to change the testing programme. Wales will review its own laws due next week, but the Welsh government has already said it could scrap its remaining restrictions at the end of March
  • Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann said his department would “carefully consider” England’s plan, but no decisions had been made on changes to his country’s test and trace programme.

Mr Javid said if Scotland chose to continue with testing, “they would pay for it in the same way we pay for the decisions we take in England”.

And Mr Johnson promised that the UK government would continue to work with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they decided how to take forward their own plans.

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From 1 April access to all types of testing in the community – both the PCR tests offered to people with symptoms and the rapid lateral flow tests used to check for asymptomatic infections – will be axed. The only exceptions set out are social care staff and those deemed at risk.

The PM did not specify which groups of people would be deemed “most vulnerable”.

To prevent the stockpiling of free lateral flow tests before 1 April, people will only be able to order a box of tests every three days instead of every 24 hours.

Once tests are no longer free, ministers expect a market for lateral flow tests to develop, with individual tests expected to cost a few pounds.

Government statistics show 160,610 people have now died, with 15 deaths reported in the latest 24-hour period. In total, 18,654,572 people have tested positive, up 38,409 in the latest 24-hour period. Latest figures show 11,223 people in hospital. In total, more than 52 million people have have had at least one vaccination

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