People in England with COVID-19 won’t be legally required to self-isolate starting in the coming week, the U.K. government has announced, as part of a plan for “living with COVID” that is also likely to see testing for the covid-19 scaled back.
Boris Johnson says an end to all legal restrictions will allow people in the U.K. to “protect themselves without limiting our freedoms.” Details of his plan are expected to be discussed in Parliament this week.
In an interview broadcast, Johnson said, “I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind, but now is the time for everyone to regain confidence.”
We have reached a stage where we believe it is time to move away from state mandates, from banning certain courses of action, from mandating certain courses of action, towards encouraging personal responsibility.”
Government experts say this is a risky move that could result in a surge in infections and weaken the country’s defences against more virulent strains in the future.
Labour Party health spokesman Wes Streeting said Johnson declared victory before the war was over.
Queen confirmed to have COVID-19
Earlier this week, Queen Elizabeth II was confirmed to have COVID-19, a reminder that the covid-19 remains widespread. The 95-year-old monarch is experiencing mild cold-like symptoms, according to Buckingham Palace.
On January 1, Johnson’s Conservative government ended most virus restrictions, scrapping vaccine passports for venues and ending mask mandates for most settings except hospitals. The public health rules set by Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have also been opened up, although more slowly.
In the U.K., high vaccination rates and the milder omicron variant meant easing restrictions did not lead to a spike in hospitalizations or deaths. Both are declining, although the United Kingdom has Europe’s highest covid-19 death toll after Russia, with more than 160,000 recorded cases.
Almost two-thirds of people in Britain aged 12 and over have had two vaccine doses and a third booster shot.
Now the Conservative government is saying it will remove “all remaining domestic COVID restrictions that restrict public freedom” as part of a “move away from government intervention to personal responsibility.”
After a positive COVID-19 test, the legal requirement to isolate for at least five days is being replaced with advisory measures, and as Covid-19 becomes endemic, it will be treated more like the flu.
COVID-19 will not vanish overnight
According to the government, vaccines and treatments will keep the virus at bay, but “surveillance systems and contingency measures will be maintained” if needed.
“COVID will not vanish overnight, and we need to learn to live with it and protect ourselves without restricting our freedom,” Johnson said.
Conservative lawmakers will welcome the announcement, as they argue the restrictions were inefficient and disproportionate. Additionally, it could strengthen Johnson’s position among party lawmakers, who have been considering ousting him over scandals involving lockdowns and government parties during the pandemic.
However, scientists noted that much remains unknown about the virus and future variants that may be more severe than the dominant omicron strain.
According to the New and Emerging Virus Threats Advisory Group, which advises the government, the notion viruses become milder over time is not true. Omicron is likely a chance occurrence, and future variants will likely be more severe or resistant to existing vaccines.
Government-commissioned epidemic modellers cautioned that “a sudden change, such as ending testing and isolation, could lead to a return to rapid epidemic growth” if precaution is ignored.
Scientists have also cautioned against ceasing to offer free rapid Covid-19 tests, which have been distributed in millions during this pandemic. It is believed that mass testing has played a major role in slowing the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, scientists are concerned that the government may end the Infection Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics. This is regarded as invaluable since it tests people regardless of their symptoms.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, an umbrella group for state-funded health authorities in Britain, told reporters, “It is not the time to take risks.” Taylor added, “We must operate based on evidence and incrementally.”