Covid: England ending isolation laws and mass free testing

All Covid restrictions will end in England on Thursday and free mass testing will stop from 1 April.

The prime minister told MPs the legal duty to isolate for those who tested positive would be dropped as he unveiled his “living with Covid” plan.

From 1 April the provision of free testing would be targeted to the most vulnerable, Boris Johnson said.

But the British Medical Association, a doctors’ union, said the plan failed to protect those most at risk from Covid.

And opposition parties said the prime minister’s blueprint out of the pandemic had moved too fast, and voiced concern over the scaling back of free testing.

The Scottish government said the public health advice it had received did not recommend lifting the restrictions.
Speaking at a Downing Street news conference on Monday evening, Mr Johnson said “today is not the day we can declare victory over Covid because this virus is not going away”.

He described the pandemic as “two of the darkest, grimmest years in our peacetime history”.

However, he said the nation had passed the peak of Omicron, with falling cases and hospital admissions.

And he said the country could now complete the “transition back towards normality” while retaining contingencies to respond to a Covid resurgence or a new variant.

England’s chief medical officer Prof Sir Chris Whitty said the ending of virus restrictions was a “gradual, steady change over a period of time”, adding: “This is not a sudden ‘everything stops’.”

He said the number of people being infected with Omicron was still “very high”.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection figures last week estimated that one in 20 people in England had Covid.

Sir Chris said the public health advice for people with Covid would still be to self-isolate to prevent others catching it, as it would be for many other highly infectious diseases.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, warned the virus would continue to evolve over the next couple of years and there was no guarantee that future variants would be less severe than Omicron.

He argued it was crucial the nation retained a virus surveillance system to monitor new threats and the capacity to “ramp up” measures again quickly to protect the vulnerable.
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What is changing in England?

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

Earlier, Mr Johnson told MPs it was time to move from government restrictions to people exercising personal responsibility.

It was only because levels of immunity were so high and deaths were now “below where you would normally expect for this time of year” that the government could lift the restrictions, he said.

As Omicron was less severe, testing for it “on the colossal scale we’ve been doing” was less important and less valuable in preventing serious illness, he added.

Limited free lateral flow tests for the most vulnerable groups would still be provided, the PM said, and ministers would work with retailers to ensure everyone who wanted a test could buy one.

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.

The scaling back of testing comes after Mr Johnson previously told the BBC £2bn had been spent on the testing system in January alone.

Mr Johnson said “targeted vaccines and treatments” would be in place for the most vulnerable, and the government would follow the recommendation of the UK’s vaccine advisory body to offer an additional booster jab to the over-75s and the most vulnerable over-12s this spring.

He added the government would maintain its resilience to respond to resurgences from the virus, including by keeping the Office for National Statistics infection surveillance survey to keep track of surges when they