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A message to self-isolate displayed on the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app Yui Mok via PA Images
Living With Covid

Boris Johnson signals end to self-isolation rules in England as part of ‘living with Covid’

He said the legal requirement to self-isolate for positive cases of Covid-19 is expected to end later this month.

THE FINAL DOMESTIC Covid-19 restrictions in England will be lifted within weeks, with people no longer required to isolate even if they test positive for Covid-19.

Boris Johnson announced his intention to scrap the legal duty later this month, as long as “encouraging trends” in the data continue.

Downing Street said the move “shows that the hard work of the British people is paying off” but scientists and campaigners raised fears about the impact the change could have on clinically vulnerable groups.

The British Prime Minister said he will present his plan for “living with Covid” when Parliament returns from a short recess on 21 February, with an aim of lifting the requirement to self-isolate within days of that.

The current self-isolation regulations expire on 24 March but Johnson told MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions that “provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions – including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive – a full month early”.

The move came as Johnson sought to bolster support within the Tory party after a bruising period for his leadership.

Former minister David Frost, who highlighted coronavirus restrictions as one of his reasons for quitting in December, said the move was “extremely welcome” and added “I hope the Government will also make clear we will not go down the road of coercive lockdowns ever again”.

Tory MP Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said: “I welcome this announcement but we are not out of the woods until the Public Health Act has been reformed, we have new rules for better modelling, competitive, multi-disciplinary expert advice and wellbeing-based cost-benefit analysis covering the costs of lockdowns and restrictions.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “We are the freest country in Europe thanks to the strong defences we have built. We’re learning to live with Covid.”

The move will see Covid-19 treated in a similar way to other infectious diseases such as flu, with people encouraged to stay at home if they were ill.

The British Prime Minister’s official spokesman said:

We would never recommend anyone goes to work when they have an infectious disease.

The prospect of the removal of the remaining restrictions, which also include the ability for councils to order the closure of premises where the virus could be spreading, has caused unease for some of those most at risk from the disease.

Phillip Anderson, head of policy at the MS Society, said ending the restrictions will “heap yet more worry and confusion on thousands of immunocompromised people”.

“In the face of callous silence from a Government that should be focused on protecting them, they could feel forced to further isolate themselves from others, putting their wider health, wellbeing and livelihoods in danger.”

The UK Government’s plan is expected to set out further information for vulnerable groups but officials also believe “cutting edge treatments” will also mitigate some of the risks.

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said while there were grounds for optimism in the overall data on deaths and hospital admissions, he had concerns about the vulnerable and people who may not have responded as well to the vaccines.

“There needs to be robust procedures in place to ensure infections in this group are diagnosed early and antivirals are provided within hours of any positive result,” he said.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading said:

If the requirement on infected individuals to isolate at home is lifted as indicated, it will be an experiment which will either be shown to be very brave or very stupid, but nobody knows for sure what the result will be.

Professor Peter Openshaw, who advises the Government on Covid through the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said he would be “very reluctant” to suggest this was the end of Covid, adding it was “still a very nasty virus”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One: “We don’t know what’s around the corner, there could be another variant, perhaps based on Delta or something else with higher pathogenicity, which could come back to bite us anytime, and I’m pretty sure that next winter we’re going to see it back.”

Figures published today show Covid-19 infection levels have risen in three of the four UK nations, with only Wales showing a fall.

Scotland and Northern Ireland both saw an increase last week in the number of people in private households likely to have coronavirus, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

England also saw a rise, though the trend here is “uncertain”, the ONS said.

The figures show there is still a high prevalence of the virus across the country, with infections remaining well above pre-Christmas levels.

Around one in 19 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to 5 February, or 2.8 million people, up from one in 20, or 2.6 million people, in the week to 29 January.

Ireland

The majority of Covid-19 restrictions were eased in Ireland last month. 

An Oireachtas Health Committee last week heard that Ireland is in a positive position with Covid-19 but the global public health risk remains high.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan told the committee that the incidence of the virus is still high but has fallen from its peak.

He has outlined that confirmed cases in hospitals and the average number of new cases in hospitals each day have also reduced, along with cases in ICU, daily admissions, and cases requiring mechanical ventilation. 

“The number of Covid-19 patients in receipt of advanced respiratory support in hospital settings outside of ICU has also reduced. The evidence in relation to Omicron as well as our experience of it, indicate that the burden of severe health outcomes appears reduced compared to previous waves of infection,” Holohan said. 

“In addition, overall Covid-19 related mortality remains relatively stable. 

“We are in this much improved situation as a result of the population’s engagement with the vaccination programme, and the booster programme in particular, and high levels of adherence to public health measures, as well as the reduced virulence of Omicron.”

Includes reporting from Lauren Boland 

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