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The Prime Minister will update MPs on his plan for ‘living with Covid’ today. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Legal requirement to self-isolate to end in England from Thursday, Johnson announces

The legal duty to self-isolate following a positive coronavirus test will fall away in the UK by the end of the week.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Feb 2022

PEOPLE WHO TEST positive for coronavirus in England will no longer be legally required to isolate from Thursday, and free universal testing will end in April under Boris Johnson’s plan for “living with Covid”.

The UK Prime Minister detailed the strategy for England to the Commons late this afternoon after a Cabinet disagreement thought to centre on funding for future surveillance of the virus.

Those who receive a positive Covid-19 test will still be advised to stay at home for at least five days, but will not be obliged to under law under the plans subject to parliamentary approval.

Routine contact tracing will also end on Thursday, as will self-isolation payments and the legal obligation for individuals to tell their employers about their requirement to isolate.

Changes to statutory sick pay and employment support allowance designed to help people through the coronavirus pandemic will end on 24 March.

People aged 75 and over, the immunosuppressed and those living in care homes will be offered another Covid-19 booster vaccine this spring under the plans.

But free universal testing will be massively scaled back from 1 April and will instead be focused on the most vulnerable, with the UK Health Security Agency set to determine the details, while a degree of asymptomatic testing will continue in the riskiest settings such as in social care.

But the Department of Health and Social Care will receive no extra money to deliver the testing.

Johnson warned the “pandemic is not over”, with the Queen’s positive test a “reminder this virus has not gone away”.

But he told MPs it was time to “move from Government restrictions to personal responsibility”, with “sufficient levels of immunity to complete the transition” from laws to relying on vaccines and treatments.

“It is time that we got our confidence back. We don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others. We can rely on that sense of responsibility towards one another,” Johnson said.

“So let us learn to live with this virus and continue protecting ourselves and others without restricting our freedoms.”

The Cabinet was due to sign off on the plan this morning, but the meeting was pushed back to the afternoon at the last minute, with the delay understood to centre on Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s demands over how elements would be funded.

Ministers including Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke had already arrived in No 10 before the postponement.

The chaos surrounding the policy, which should help shore up Mr Johnson’s support on the Tory backbenches by ending the remaining legal restrictions in a nation that has lived under measures for nearly two years, came as the PM’s authority was undermined by the partygate scandal.

But No 10 ultimately said the Cabinet gave the strategy its “unanimous backing” after a virtual meeting in the afternoon.

Australia reopens

Jubilant visitors returned to Australia today as the country reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists, nearly two years after the island nation imposed some of the world’s strictest Covid-19 travel restrictions.

At the country’s two major international airports in Sydney and Melbourne, tired but elated family and friends rushed from gates to embrace loved ones after years apart.

virus-outbreak-australia Passengers are welcomed as they arrive at Sydney International Airport in Sydney today. AP AP

Bernie Edmonds was emotional as he hugged his eight-year-old granddaughter, Charlotte, who had just landed in Sydney.

“It’s great to have her back,” he said. “She’s got to go again but we’ll get her back again.”

The country closed its borders to almost everyone except citizens and permanent residents in March 2020, trying to slow surging Covid-19 case numbers.

The travel ban — which also barred citizens from going overseas without an exemption and imposed a strict cap on international arrivals — earned the country the nickname “Fortress Australia”.

Sydneysider Jody Tuchin was excited to pick up her best friend, who she had not seen since 2018.

“He made it back just in time for my wedding in four days,” she told AFP.

Meanwhile, Qantas pilot Paul Grant said it was “nice to have passengers back on again”.

A Qantas flight from Los Angeles was the first to touch down in Sydney at 6:20 am (19:20 GMT) followed by arrivals from Tokyo, Vancouver and Singapore.

“It’s fair to say we’ve all been waiting a long time to welcome visitors back to Australia,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said.

The national carrier expects to bring more than 14,000 passengers into Australia this week — the start of what many believe will be a long, slow recovery for a tourism sector devastated by the pandemic.

“I think we’re going to see a very, very strong rebound,” Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said at Sydney airport, wearing a t-shirt with the words: “Welcome Back”.

Attracting tourists from China, previously Australia’s biggest market, would be difficult while Beijing enforces a zero-Covid policy, Tehan admitted.

“But as soon as that changes, Tourism Australia have been doing a lot of work to make sure that we will be ready to encourage those Chinese visitors to come.”

The Australian government has launched a AUS$40 million ($28.7 million) advertising campaign to lure tourists back, but only 56 international flights are scheduled to land in the country in the 24 hours after the re-opening — far below pre-pandemic levels.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had “no doubt” traveller numbers will scale up in time.

‘Fortress Australia’

Every month under “Fortress Australia” has cost businesses an estimated AUS$3.6 billion, according to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with tourism particularly hard hit.

Tony Walker, managing director of Quicksilver Group, which operates cruises, diving excursions and resorts across the Great Barrier Reef, told AFP he was “very excited about being able to re-open”.

International tourists “make up around 70 percent” of business for tourism operators on the reef, Walker said, making the two-year border closure “incredibly difficult”.

During the pandemic, his company had to reduce its employees from 650 to the 300 it has today.

Key to Australia’s reopening is a government requirement that all overseas travellers must be fully vaccinated.

At Sydney Airport, American tourist Robert Landis said this had not dissuaded him from visiting.

“I’ve just been looking for any opportunity to get down here,” he said.

However, the Australian Tourism Export Council warned this week that “there are worrying signs consumers are wary of travelling” to Australia, with “confusion over our various state travel restrictions and concern about snap border closures” a key issue.

No west just yet

Western Australia will not re-open to international travellers on Monday, holding off until 3 March.

Until recently, the state had pursued a strict Covid-zero policy, cutting itself off from the rest of the country.

The decision sparked lawsuits – and the observation that it was easier for Australians to travel to Paris than Perth – but proved popular with West Australians.

Additional reporting from © AFP 2022

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