Boris Johnson will hail a “moment of pride” for the nation today as he announces the end of all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England.
The prime minister will emphasise the importance of “personal responsibility” instead of government intervention as he unveils his plan for the country to “live with Covid”.
It includes a drive to end mass working from home. Vaccines will be used for the foreseeable future to maintain a high rate of immunity in the population.
Speaking before publication of the government’s plan, Johnson said: “[It] will mark 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.
“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.
“The pandemic is not over but thanks to the incredible vaccine rollout we are now one step closer towards a return to normality and finally giving people back their freedoms while continuing to protect ourselves and others.”
The most controversial move to be announced by Johnson today will be the decision to scrap the legal requirement to self-isolate after testing positive for the virus. It is expected to be replaced by guidance.
Labour said that it was too early to end self-isolation and demanded that the prime minister publish scientific evidence before making the move. “At this stage it is not the right thing to do,” Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said yesterday.
The changes announced by Johnson will apply only to England, but Scotland and Wales are likely to follow next month. Northern Ireland scrapped all remaining Covid measures last week.
The prime minister said yesterday that “the pandemic is not over” and insisted the ending of restrictions was not a green light for people to “totally throw caution to the winds” because Covid “remains a dangerous disease”.
He said that now was the time to “shift the balance” away from “state mandation” to personal responsibility, with the legal requirement for self-isolation expected to end in England by the end of the week. People should “feel confident again” thanks to the success of Britain’s vaccine rollout and should return to the office to help the country with “getting back on its feet”.
He added that today represents an important moment after “one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history” and urged the nation to “get back to work”.
He will chair a special meeting of his cabinet today to finalise details on ending the legal requirement to self-isolate and a phased end to free coronavirus testing as part of efforts to reduce the government’s huge pandemic bill.
On a busy day in Westminster, Johnson will then announce the living with Covid plan in a statement in the Commons. That will be followed by what could be the final coronavirus press conference in Downing Street.
Free lateral flow tests are costing taxpayers £2 billion per month and today’s plan is expected to announce a date when the tests will no longer be universally free of charge, likely to be in the spring.
Free tests are expected to be limited to a new list of key workers. Trade union leaders said that charging for coronavirus tests would be an “act of madness” in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. The TUC called for lateral flow and PCR tests to remain free for all who need access to them. Introducing charges would disproportionately hit rontline and low-paid workers, it was claimed.
The government has bought enough jabs to vaccinate the population twice over in the next two years. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will continue to provide advice on who should receive protection.
The over-75s and those who have immuno-suppressant conditions will be offered another booster vaccination within weeks. It is six months since many had their jab last autumn.
A government source said: “A certain level of population immunity will be needed to stop the virus getting to an unsustainable level. Vaccines will be here for the foreseeable future.”
The unvaccinated and clinically vulnerable were particularly at risk from the decision to end self-isolation rules, he acknowledged, in a sign that the legal requirement will be replaced with guidance that will urge those testing positive to adopt caution when interacting with certain groups of people.
Measures such as free coronavirus tests are likely to be removed in stages within weeks. But people aged 80 and above and patients and staff in hospitals and other high-risk settings such as care homes are to continue to get free tests, The Daily Telegraph reported.
Johnson insisted that the government would retain testing capability to “snap back up as fast as we need to” if there is a resurgence of the virus.
Two sets of regulations are due to be scrapped this week. The first will end the legal duty of self-isolation for those who test positive and close contacts. The second will mean that local authorities will be required to manage outbreaks through planning and pre-existing public health powers rather than blanket lockdown rules.
The cabinet will make a final decision on ending restrictions tomorrow before the prime minister makes an announcement in the House of Commons that will lay out the government’s plan to live with Covid. The changes will only apply to England, although Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to drop their own restrictions in the coming weeks.
The prime minister said that thanks to the vaccine campaign, Britain was in a “different world” and could begin to live with the coronavirus without any legal requirements.
Nearly 53 million people, or 77 per cent of the UK population — 91 per cent of those aged over 12 — have had one vaccine dose, and nearly 49 million have had a second jab. Ministers have also pointed to new treatments, including antiviral drugs that significantly reduce the risk of severe disease or death, to justify the end of restrictions.