All remaining domestic Covid restrictions in England, including the requirement to isolate when testing positive for the virus, are to be removed on Thursday, February 24th, Boris Johnson has announced in the House of Commons. The Telegraph has more.
Boris Johnson says while coronavirus has not gone away, “we can now deal with it in a very different way, moving from Government restrictions to personal responsibility so we protect ourselves without losing our liberties and maintaining our contingent capabilities so we can respond rapidly to any new variant”.
Mr Johnson notes the U.K. was the first major European nation to boost half of its population, and the “extraordinary success of the vaccine programme” has enabled the early lifting of restrictions – both in July 2021 and avoiding another winter lockdown.
“While the pandemic is not over, we have now passed the peak of the Omicron wave with cases falling, hospitalisations now below 10,000 in England and still falling and the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths substantially weakened.
“Together with the treatments and scientific understanding of the virus we’ve now built up, we now have sufficient levels of community to complete the transition from protecting people with Government interventions to relying on vaccines and treatments as our first line of defence.”
Boris Johnson confirms “all remaining domestic restrictions will be removed”.
From February 24th, the legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive test will come to an end, “and so we will also end self-isolation support payments, although Covid provisions for statutory sick pay can still be claimed for a further month”.
Contact tracing will come to an end, and fully vaccinated close contacts will no longer be asked to test daily for seven days.
“We will remove the legal requirement for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to self-isolate.”
Until April 1st people will be advised to stay at home if they test positive, but after that, “we will encourage people with COVID-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others.”
Only because levels of immunity are so high and deaths are “below where you would expect for this time of year” can restrictions be lifted, says Boris Johnson.
This rationale raises the question of whether we will have to endure restrictions next time deaths go above average. The lockdown logic that dictates social restrictions must be imposed merely because deaths trend above ‘normal’ is still there, and threatens to reassert itself in future viral outbreaks, especially in winter.
It’s a pity that the guidance on self-isolation for Covid contacts appears to retain a discriminatory element against the unvaccinated, but at least it is only guidance. Though will employers turn it into something more coercive?
Travel restrictions also remain in place, especially for the ‘not fully vaccinated’, and there was no mention of when these might be brought to an end. Why not? COVID-19 is either a threat warranting restrictions or it isn’t. And the differential treatment of vaccinated and unvaccinated when the vaccinated spread the virus no less than the unvaccinated is plainly unjustified.
The Prime Minister also announced the immediate end of testing in schools and the withdrawal of free tests from April 1st.
From today, the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to test twice a week will be removed, and from April 1st – “when winter is over and the virus will spread less easily” – free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public will end.
The oldest age groups and those most vulnerable to Covid will still receive free tests, he confirms, while making sure “everyone who wants to can buy a test”.
A recommendation to use vaccine passports will also be dropped by April 1st.
The PM confirmed that the JCVI advice for a spring fourth dose for those aged 75 and over and those over 12 who are immunosuppressed would be accepted. He also said that the monitoring programmes, including the ONS Infection Survey (which it was rumoured may be scrapped) will continue, as will “pharmaceutical” public health interventions, presumably referring primarily to vaccines.
[SAGE] is certain there will be new variants and it is very possible they will be worse than Omicron. So we will maintain our resilience to manage and respond to these risks, including our world-leading ONS survey, which will allow us to continue tracking the virus in granular detail, with regional and age breakdowns helping us to spot surges as and where they happen… In all circumstances, our aim will be to manage and respond to future risks through more routine public health interventions, with pharmaceutical interventions as the first line of defence.
Mr. Johnson concluded:
Covid will not suddenly disappear. So those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting these regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come.
This Government does not believe that is right or necessary. Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing and on the life chances of our children. And we do not need to pay that cost any longer.
We have a population that is protected by the biggest vaccination programme in our history. We have the antivirals, the treatments and the scientific understanding of this virus. And we have the capabilities to respond rapidly to any resurgence or new variant. And it is time that we got our confidence back.
We don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others. We can rely on that sense of responsibility towards one another, providing practical advice in the knowledge that people will follow it to avoid infecting loved ones and others.
The promise, or rather threat, to “respond rapidly to any resurgence or new variant” is obviously ominous, as is the implication that above average deaths may trigger restrictions once more. Alongside this, the refusal to confirm that the pandemic is over is a missed opportunity, and there was no equivalent of the Danish reclassification of Covid as no longer a socially critical disease – if the Coronavirus Act is to be repealed it wasn’t mentioned. The continuance of travel restrictions is also unjustified. So there is still work to do.
Sir Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, asked Boris to review pandemic planning for the future to ensure “crucial lessons are learned” from lockdowns. Reaffirming his faith in the draconian interventions, Boris replied that he thought the “collective actions of the British public were indispensable in saving many, many thousands of lives”. However, he added that “all the evidence will be looked at in the course of the inquiry”. What the inquiry concludes, though, will be heavily dependent on (among other things) how much weight it puts on ‘evidence’ from models versus real-world outcomes, and thus on the biases of those conducting the inquiry. The fact that Boris retains his faith in lockdowns and remains committed to ‘rapid responses’ to new variants and surges to prevent deaths going above average suggests we have a long way to go to achieve the end goal of ‘never again’.
Nonetheless, the lifting of the remaining legal restrictions along with much of the guidance and the end of free testing is of course welcome, and it is good to see that sceptical voices have largely won out on this occasion.