Is the UK ready to begin ‘living with Covid’?

Government will emphasise personal responsibility over blanket regulations as it lifts all legal restrictions

Woman wearing mask on the London Underground
(Image credit: Ming Yeung )

The last remaining Covid-19 restrictions are to be scrapped in England as the government sets out how the country is going to live with the virus.

The plan will put greater emphasis on “personal responsibility” instead of legislation, The Times reported. It is likely to include “a drive to end mass working from home” as well as the use of vaccines to boost immunity “for the foreseeable future”, the paper said.

Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the cabinet this morning before updating MPs in the Commons and publishing his proposals later today.

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The prime minister has already called the end of restrictions “a moment of pride after one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history as we begin to learn to live with Covid”.

While he acknowledged that “the pandemic is not over”, he said the UK’s “incredible vaccine rollout” means that we are “one step closer towards a return to normality and finally giving people back their freedoms while continuing to protect ourselves and others”.

He continued: “It would not be possible without the efforts of so many – the NHS who delivered the life-saving vaccine rollout at phenomenal speed, our world-leading scientists and experts, and the general public for their commitment to protecting themselves and their loved ones.”

What will be announced?

England’s last remaining Covid laws will be repealed, meaning that people who test positive and their close contacts will no longer be required by law to self-isolate, possibly from as early as Thursday. They “will still be advised by the government to self-isolate and only return to work after testing negative” but legal enforcement will end, said The Telegraph.

The plan is also expected to include a requirement for local authorities to “manage outbreaks through planning and pre-existing public health powers, as they would with other diseases”, said the paper.

Johnson could also announce when access to free Covid testing will come to an end, a shift that has been discussed for weeks among senior ministers.

People in “high-risk settings such as health care” as well as the “most vulnerable and elderly” are likely to have access to free testing “indefinitely”, according to Politico’s London Playbook. The Telegraph says free testing is likely to be scrapped “from the beginning of April”, but those aged 80 and above will still get free tests.

Details of the plans were "still being finalised on Sunday” after much “wrangling” between Rishi Sunak, who is “seeking to rein in the £2bn a month cost of testing” and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, whose department has argued that “protections for the vulnerable need to be maintained”, said the paper.

Additional vaccinations for the elderly and clinically vulnerable will be Britain’s “first line of defence”, reported The Sunday Times. It said a fourth jab for the over-75s could be given “within weeks” – and that boosters will then be “run in much the same way as annual flu jabs, which target the elderly and the vulnerable”.

The “long-term vaccine strategy for the wider population” is unlikely to be announced today, said Politico.

Johnson told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme that he hoped the “vaccine-led approach” would head off the need for more restrictions in the future, but conceded that he could make no promises. “I’m afraid you’ve got to be humble in the face of nature,” he said.

The political reaction

While Johnson seemed “bullish about the prospects of returning most freedoms to their pre-Covid frontiers”, Labour frontbenchers were more cautious, accusing ministers of wanting to “declare victory before the war is over”, said The Guardian.

On the Sunday Morning programme, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said that the move to end free testing “seemed premature” and, using a football analogy, likened it to having “ten minutes left to play and subbing your best defender”.

The shift in strategy will certainly “delight many Conservative backbenchers at a time when the prime minister has been under intense scrutiny over Downing Street parties”, said ITV. But some remain nervous about the end of restrictions, particularly the move to end free testing. Backbencher Tim Loughton told the BBC’s Westminster Hour that he had “slight apprehensions” about winding down the testing programme despite being “pleased we’re trying to get back to normal”.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, told the BBC’s Today programme that “there isn’t a right or wrong answer” to when restrictions change.

“If restrictions change this week, next week, or the week after, in six months the number of transmission events will likely be very similar,” he said. But having “an early warning system” in place to spot new variants of concern would be “critical” once restrictions were eased.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.