The Prime Minister’s “living with COVID” plan has been expected since before the government’s parliamentary recess at the start of February. Impact’s Hannah Walton-Hughes discusses what the lifting of restrictions could mean for the country, and what the overall response has been.
After a delayed meeting, cabinet ministers have consented to Boris Johnson’s new “living with COVID” plan. The PM has said that this plan will result in a step “towards a return to normality” and would rely more heavily on people using their own common sense. He is expected to lead a televised news conference from No.10, alongside England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and the government’s chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance.
This relaxing of rules comes a month after Plan B in the COVID response, where face masks were encouraged in public spaces and vaccine passports were still required in some situations, was scrapped. Despite the lifting of restrictions, Boris Johnson has said that “contingency measures” would remain, and that this was still very much a “cautious” approach.
This plan will result in a step “towards a return to normality”
This announcement came just one day after Her Majesty the Queen announced that she had tested positive for COVID-19.
One of the major changes to restrictions comes in the form of changes to rules surrounding testing. Community PCR testing for people with symptoms is expected to be scrapped, but it is unclear how the supply of free lateral flow tests will be affected. This comes following the £2bn spent on testing in the month of January alone.
Nevertheless, PCR testing is expected to be kept in hospitals, in order to keep a close eye on variants, and to diagnose severely ill patients. The legal requirement to isolate after testing positive for COVID will also be abolished. Furthermore, the current Office for National Statistics comprehensive survey is expected to be cut back to a smaller scale. However, many feel that it is still essential to have a clear way of measuring the spread of the virus.
Some people support this significant reduction in restrictions but believe we should remain vigilant. COVID-19 is no longer seen as a serious threat; despite the high levels of infections, deaths in the last few months have not really been any higher than would normally be expected in an average winter.
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
The vaccine rollout has also been highly successful, with just over 91% of 12+ year-olds having received their first dose, 85% having received their second, and 66% having received their third/booster. The government has also announced that it plans to give a low-dose vaccine to children in England between the ages of 5 and 11, in April this year.
Professor Sir Andrew Polland, who was involved in the development of the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine, has commented that “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.”
However, not everybody is convinced. Labour has questioned the government’s plan to lift restrictions on testing, and Dr Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the British Medical Association has said that he feels the government are “trying to pretend that COVID doesn’t exist in the day-to-day lives of so many people.” Concerns that sick pay for workers off work with COVID will be abolished have also arisen.
As has been the case throughout the entirety of the pandemic, the four areas of the UK have moved at different speeds with different restrictions. COVID level 0 currently applies to Wales, whilst Scotland has made the decision to extend legislation on vaccine passports and face coverings by a further six months. On 22nd February, Northern Ireland scrapped all remaining COVID measures.
However, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, sent a letter to the PM, along with Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann, warning of “the need to keep extra testing in place.” In response to this, meetings have been between Michael Gove (minister for intergovernmental relations) and Stormont ministers, with the aim of discussing future funding to “fight” the pandemic.
This is the biggest step that the country has taken in terms of relaxing restrictions, and many wait with bated breath to see what the impact will be.
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