Covid: Living with Covid plan will restore freedom, says Boris Johnson – BBC

By Mary O'Connor & Malu Cursino
BBC News

Boris Johnson is due to set out his plans to scrap all remaining Covid legal restrictions in England, including the requirement to isolate.
The BBC understands cabinet ministers have agreed to the PM's "living with Covid plan" after a delayed meeting.
There were reports of tensions between the Treasury and the Department of Health over how parts of the plan will be funded.
Some experts have urged caution and Labour queried plans to reduce testing.
Mr Johnson is expected to update MPs in the Commons at about 16:30 GMT.
The prime minister will then lead a televised No 10 news conference at 19:00 GMT alongside England's chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government's chief scientific adviser.
Speaking before Monday's announcement, Mr Johnson said his plan would bring society "towards a return to normality".
No 10 said the Covid vaccination programme had put England in a "strong position to consider lifting the remaining legal restrictions".
It added that the plan for living with Covid would take a "cautious approach" retaining "some surveillance systems and plans for contingency measures".
The legal requirement to self-isolate for a fixed period after testing positive in England has been in place ever since mass testing was rolled out.
Currently positive or asymptomatic people have to isolate for up to 10 days, but can end their isolation earlier if they register negative lateral flow tests on both days five and six.
Mr Johnson has said that Covid testing would take place at a "much lower level" after revealing £2bn was spent on the system in January alone.
Community PCR testing for people with symptoms is expected to stop under the new plan, but it is unclear whether the availability of free lateral flow tests will be reduced.
On the issue of changes to testing arrangements, a Welsh government spokesperson said any decision to alter them "would be premature and reckless".
Earlier, Stormont ministers held talks with Michael Gove, minister for intergovernmental relations, about future funding to fight the Covid pandemic ahead of the PM's announcement.
It follows a joint letter from Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland's Health Minister Robin Swann warning of the need to keep existing testing in place.
Covid is no longer an exceptional threat. Despite the huge wave of infections, the numbers dying in recent months has been similar to what you would expect during a normal winter.
Most agree some scaling back is warranted, but it needs to be done carefully.
During the pandemic £37 billion has been set aside for test and trace. This is a huge sum – more than has been spent on GP care.
Mass PCR testing in the community is almost certain to go. But these gold standard tests will be kept in hospitals to diagnose patients who are seriously ill and to keep an eye out on variants.
Many believe the Office for National Statistics surveillance survey can be done on a smaller scale, but it is essential to have something to keep a check on how the virus is spreading.
Read more analysis here.
Prof 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.
He said: "If restrictions change this week, next week, or the week after, in six months' time the number of transmission events will likely be very similar."
He added that having a surveillance system – "an early warning system" – in place whenever restrictions are eased will be "critical".
The government is expected to urge people to exercise their own judgement.
But Prof Anthony Costello, professor of global health and sustainable development at UCL, told the BBC: "The worry about lifting the legal restrictions is that we are telling not only our population, but the world, that there is really nothing to worry about, that it's all over when it isn't."
Just over 91% of people in the UK aged 12 and over have had a first dose of a vaccine, 85% a second jab, and 66% a booster or a third dose, according to official data, which has been collated daily since the vaccine rollout began in December 2020.
The UK's vaccine advisory body has recommended that an additional Covid booster vaccination should be offered to all adults over the age of 75 and the most vulnerable over-12s this spring.
England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are set to accept the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The government has announced it will offer a low-dose Covid vaccine to children aged between five and 11 in England during April. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have also said they will be offering young children the same vaccine.
The prime minister's announcement will come a day after Buckingham Palace revealed the Queen, 95, had tested positive for Covid.
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The new Covid plans would also see councils in England become responsible for managing outbreaks using existing powers.
The Office for National Statistics infection survey, which randomly tests a sample of the population, is also expected to be replaced with a slimmed down surveillance programme.
On Sunday, the UK recorded another 25,696 new infections and a further 74 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test – although Sunday figures do tend to be among the lowest of any typical week.
Amid concerns that payments for people off sick due to Covid will come to an end, Wes Streeting said "now is not the time to start charging for tests or weaken sick pay".
He said he was "particularly concerned" about the end of free testing and described such a move as "like being 2-1 up with 10 minutes left of play and subbing your best defender".
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said infections need to fall further before the rules were relaxed.
"It does appear as if the government is trying to pretend that Covid doesn't exist in the day-to-day lives of so many people," he told the BBC.
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Several scientists and clinicians – including Prof Anthony Costello, Dr Kit Yates and Prof Christina Pagel – have signed an open letter to Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, urging them to "clarify the extent to which the planned policies are consistent with scientific advice and what specifically that scientific advice contained".
Plan B measures – introduced in December to stem the spread of the Omicron variant – including the requirement to wear masks in public places and the use of Covid passes for large events, were abolished in England last month.
Throughout the pandemic, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have moved at different speeds in introducing or relaxing restrictions.
In Northern Ireland, all remaining Covid measures – such as certificates in nightclubs, face coverings, and limits on gatherings in homes – stopped being legally binding on Tuesday.
Wales is currently at alert level zero, its lowest level of Covid rules.
In Scotland, legislation covering face coverings and vaccine passports had been due to expire next Monday but earlier this month ministers extended it for another six months.
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