The government is scrapping all legal coronavirus restrictions in England from Thursday and free tests will no longer be available to the general public after the end of March.
Boris Johnson announced to parliament yesterday that he was bringing forward the closing date for the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test for Covid-19 to February 24, after the change was originally planned for the end of March.
People will still be advised to stay at home of they have the virus, but the government will bring an end to routine contact tracing.
Free NHS lateral-flow tests will no longer be available to order from the government, and will have to be purchased privately if people still want to check if they have coronavirus.
The UK Health Security Agency, which is in charge of the test and trace programme, has previously said private Covid tests will be a “key part” of the government’s long-term strategy for managing the virus.
CSW reported yesterday that UKHSA had signed a £1m deal with the consulting giant Deloitte to help it assess private providers amid shortages of free tests over winter.
As of 1 April, the free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing channels will end for the general public in England.
Free symptomatic testing will still be available for only the most vulnerable, but the precise groupings that will be decided by UKHSA in the coming weeks. It is expected to be targeted towards the very oldest and immunosuppressed only.
It is expected a box of tests will cost around £30 to purchase after that.
The prime minister said with total cases falling and hospitalisations from Covid-19 also down, along with the rapid increase in the booster programme on top of previous vaccination rounds that now is the right time to begin “living with Covid”.
From Thursday, Covid self-isolation payments will end, along with the legal obligation for individuals to tell employers when they are required to self isolate.
The government will also remove the Covid provisions on statutory sick pay and Employment Support Allowance from March 24, which meant people could only claim from the first day you are away from work, rather than after four and seven days respectfully.
The use of voluntarily Covid status certification will no longer be recommended from the end of March. "The NHS app will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel," Johnson told the Commons in a delayed statement.
"The government will also expire all temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act," he continued.
"Of the original 40, 20 have already expired and 16 will expire on March 24, and the last four relating to innovations in public service will expire six months later after we've made those improvements permanent via other means."
Johnson stressed that the pandemic “isn't over” and there is still uncertainty, and the scientific advice is that the virus is not yet endemic, and there is “room for significant future mutations”.
He continued: “Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental well-being 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 variants."
Johnson insisted that people needed to regain their "confidence" and that laws were not needed for people to be considerate to others when they contract an illness.
"We can rely on that sense of responsibility towards providing practical advice in the knowledge that people will follow it to avoid infecting loved ones and others," he said.
“So let us learn to live with this virus and continue protecting ourselves and others without restricting our freedoms.”
But the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called Johnson's statement "half-baked", and accused the government of being "paralysed by chaos and incompetence".
He said as a nation "there is no doubt we need to move on from Covid", but said today's announcement "is not a plan to live well with Covid".
Starmer agreed that free tests "can't continue forever", but criticised the decision to end access to them as early as next month.
"All we've got today is yet more chaos and disarray," he said. "Not enough to prepare us for the new variants which may yet develop. An approach which seems to think that living with Covid means simply ignoring it.
"This morning he couldn't even persuade his own health secretary to agree the plan," he said, referring to a reported row over funding for continued testing between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury. "So what confidence can the public have that this is the right approach?"
The Labour leader believed people will continue to act "responsibly" and "do the right thing" of testing and isolating if positive, but said he can't understand why the government is "taking away the tools that will help them to do that".
But Johnson said the reasoning for ending Covid restrictions in England is "amply there in the scientific evidence”.
Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised an additional booster dose of the vaccine should be given to the most vulnerable individuals in the population this spring to maintain their protection against severe Covid-19.
The committee said it should go to adults aged 75 years and over, residents in a care home for older adults; and individuals aged 12 and up who are immunosuppressed.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said he has accepted the JCVI advice, and has asked the NHS to prepare to offer those eligible the extra dose from around six months after their last booster.
“We know immunity to Covid-19 begins to wane over time,” he said.
“That’s why we’re offering a spring booster to those people at higher risk of serious Covid-19 to make sure they maintain a high level of protection. It’s important that everyone gets their top-up jabs as soon as they’re eligible.”
Javid said whether the booster programme should be extended to further at-risk groups will be kept under review.
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.