What is the living with Covid plan – and when do the isolation rules change in the UK?

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  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the government’s living with Covid plan on February 21, just days before scrapping the isolation requirement for those who test positive for the virus. 

    Speaking to the House of Commons, he explained that the Queen’s positive Covid-19 test was “a reminder that this virus has not gone away but because of the efforts we have made as a country over the past two years we can now deal with it in a very different way, moving from government restrictions to personal responsibility.”

    The living with Covid plan may be an exciting prospect for those able to look beyond the pandemic. But not all countries in the UK are ending coronavirus restrictions at the same time.

    What is the living with Covid plan?

    No need to self isolate with Covid-19

    If you test positive for Covid via a lateral flow test or a PCR from Thursday February 24, you do not legally need to isolate under the living with Covid plan. Until April 1, however, the government are still advising those who test positive to stay at home.

    “But after that,” the PM said, “We will encourage people with Covid-19 symptoms to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others.”

    Routine contact tracing, i.e. the NHS Track and Trace system, will no longer be in operation. Those who are fully vaccinated close contacts of someone who has tested positive won’t have to test daily for seven days. This also applies to anyone under the age of 18 and also to those who are not fully vaccinated.

    Naturally, not having to isolate means that self-isolate support payments will end. This gives businesses reliant on them through the pandemic no choice but to welcome in staff who are testing positive – or pay out of pocket. Similarly, Covid provisions for Statutory Sick Pay will end next month.

    There’s already been a wave of backlash from MPs, charities, unions and scientists against the decision. Many have pointed out that new variants mean you can get Covid twice, for instance, to varying degrees of severity. Many have also accused Boris Johnson of trying to distract from the controversy around the Downing Street parties, following the publication of the Sue Gray report earlier this year.

    Speaking to Kay Burley on Sky News, Professor Devi Sridhar of Edinburgh University Medical School said, “I don’t think it’ll be a welcome surprise to most people. To release isolation…isolation is about stopping someone who’s infectious passing that on to someone else… it’s, I think, too early right now.

    But the prime minister has said that the move is justified because “levels of immunity are so high. And deaths are now, if anything, below where you would normally expect for this time of year.”

    He continued, “And it only because we know Omicron is less severe, that testing for Omicron on the colossal scale we have been doing is much less important, and much less valuable in preventing serious illness.”

    No more testing for schoolchildren or the general population

    From February 21, the government removed the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to take twice-a-week asymptomatic Covid-19 tests. Initially, this was put in place to try and reduce the spread of the virus from educational settings to the wider community.

    And then from April 1, both lateral flow and PCR testing for the general public will no longer be free of charge. Boris Johnson has said that in line with many other countries, they are working “to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test.”

    Under the living with Covid plan, free symptomatic tests (PCR tests, for example) will still be available for those in older age groups and those most vulnerable to Covid-19.

    No more compulsory face masks

    When can we stop wearing face masks? It’s been the question on everyone’s mind since the beginning of the pandemic, with rules changing amid every spike of the virus. But now, following the scrapping of all Covid restrictions in England, face coverings won’t be a legal requirement – anywhere.

    Woman wearing a face mask in the office as the living with Covid plan begins

    Credit: Getty

    Instead, businesses will have to dictate whether they want employees and customers to wear masks. And members of the public will be able to make their own decision on masks in public places. This includes public transport.

    On February 21, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said that masks were no longer compulsory on the Tube. Up until now, they were optional in other public areas. But Transport for London personally made them a condition of travel.

    He said, “Following the government dropping all legal Covid restrictions, and in light of falling infection levels in London, it is expected that wearing a face covering will no longer be a condition of carriage on the TfL network.”

    No more vaccine passports

    The requirement to offer proof of a double vaccination was only really put into place around Christmas last year, when the Omicron wave hit but the government confirmed that we were not going back into lockdown.

    From April 1, they will no longer be a requirement anywhere in England – for domestic use or international travel. However, anyone who requires a vaccine passport will be able to access their certification on the NHS app.

    Spring booster jabs for those vulnerable and/or over 75

    The Covid booster jab has been attributed as the primary reason for being able to lift these restrictions. In his speech to the Commons, the prime minister said, “It is because of the extraordinary success of this vaccination programme, that we have been able to lift our restrictions earlier than other comparable countries, opening up last summer, while others remained closed, and keeping things open this winter, when others shut down again.”

    According to the most recent data available, over 71% of all adults have now had a third jab, including 93% of those over the age of 70.

    And so to continue the programme, Mr Johnson announced that the government was taking further action to “guard against a possible resurgence of the virus”. They will do this by following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and offer a new Spring booster jab to those over 75, older care home residents and those over 12 who are also immunosuppressed.

    The Coronavirus Act expires

    The Coronavirus Act 2020 became law in March 2020, just before the first lockdown, to allow the government emergency powers. It gave officials the ability to limit or suspend public gatherings and detain individuals suspected to be infected with Covid-19. Along with easing the burden on the public health service, assisting healthcare workers and those economically affected, and relaxing regulations when they saw fit.

    While the government had the power to prolong the act by six months at ministerial discretion, it had a two-year time limit. This means that the act expires in March this year and the only way it could continue would be with votes by ministers.

    On February 21, Boris Johnson announced that all provisions of the Coronavirus Act will now expire. “Of the original 40, 20 have already expired. 16 will expire on 24 March and the last 4 relating to innovations in public service will expire six months later. After we have made those improvements permanent via other means,” he said.

    New surveillance system to avoid future pandemics

    The prime minister set out a strategy to try and ‘future-proof’ the country against any possible future pandemics. Among the plans was:

    • More protection against laboratory leaks
    • A refresh to the UK Biosecurity Strategy to protect the country against natural and accidental virus spillovers. Along with biological threats from other countries or terrorists.
    • The Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey will remain in place to monitor the virus
    • Laboratories will ramp up testing to combat any new possible Covid-19 variants

    But ultimately, the prime minister said that Covid-19 will be a routine public health issue – much like the flu.”In all circumstances, our aim will be to manage and respond to future risks through more routine public health interventions, with pharmaceutical interventions as the first line of defence,” he said.

    When can you come out of Covid isolation in England?

    Self-isolation is due to end on February 24 2022 in England as part of the PM’s plan to bring society “towards a return to normality”. The rules were due to end on March 24, following an announcement by the PM in January.

    But the PM hinted that if there was positive data, the plan would come earlier. Mr Johnson explained, “Providing the current encouraging tends 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.”

    Prior to February 24, you could come out of isolation in England 5 full days after testing positive for Covid. As long as you have a negative lateral flow test on day 5 and day 6. Anyone who still tests positive after two lateral flow tests days apart should continue to isolate. As the two lateral flow tests will confirm whether you’re still infectious with the virus, the need for them to both be negative before exiting isolation is “crucial”, government guidance says. 

    Sajid Javid said, “After reviewing all of the evidence, we’ve made the decision to reduce the minimum self-isolation period to 5 full days in England. These 2 tests are critical to these balanced and proportionate plans. I’d urge everyone to take advance of the capacity we’ve built up in tests so we can restore more freedom to this country, whilst we are keeping everyone safe.” 

    Both the health secretary and the PM have stressed the need for two jabs for freedoms that the change brings. This includes the Covid booster jab, which is still available at many walk-in clinics and GP surgeries. 

    However when it comes to coronavirus restrictions, not all the devolved nations in the UK are on the same page.

    When is isolation ending in Scotland?

    Scotland has powers to keep those testing positive in isolation until September 24 2022. Up until the new year, much like England, the quarantine period was 10 days without exception. But as of January 6, self-isolation ends for those who don’t have a fever and test negative on day 6. And then again at least 24 hours later.

    Those with three doses of the vaccine don’t need to isolate if they are a close contact of someone who tests positive. So long as they can produce a negative test every day for seven days and don’t have a fever. This rule applies even to those who they share a household with and those under the age of 18.

    First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said of the new rules, “These changes are significant, but we believe they are also justified. They balance the importance of self-isolation – in slowing the virus’s spread and reducing the harm it can cause – with the wider harms to the economy that broader self-isolation rules can cause.”

    When do Covid rules change in Wales?

    Self-isolation rules in Wales could revert to guidance as early as March, Economy Minister Vaughan Gething said. It follows a statement from the government that confirmed rates were falling. This meant that some rules – such as the need for a Covid passport – could be axed from February 18. However, for the moment, all other restrictions are in place.

    Parents and children working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, before rules on when you can come out of Covid isolation ended

    Credit: Getty

    Mr Gething said that the prime minister’s decision to end isolation on February 24 was not based on scientific evidence.

    If you have symptoms of Covid-19 and are living in Wales, you should self-isolate immediately. And take a PCR test as soon as possible. Following five days of isolation, you can take a lateral flow test on day five and a second one the following day to end the quarantine. As long as you test negative. Guidance from the Welsh government says, “You should not take a LFT before day 5 of your self-isolation. The risk of remaining infectious and therefore passing the infection onto others before this period is significantly higher.”

    Those who are still testing positive on day 5 should stay in isolation. At least until they can offer 2 consecutive negative lateral flow tests. If day 10 of isolation comes sooner than this, they can leave on this day. This is without the need to produce a negative lateral flow test result, unless they still have a temperature. In this rarer case, they should continue to isolate until this goes away.

    When can you stop isolating in Northern Ireland?

    The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has “no plans” to scrap Covid-19 testing or isolation. All other restrictions, including the need for a Covid passport, became guidance on February 15. But Health Minister Robin Swann has stressed that there aren’t any plans to cut arrangements for quarantine. So for the moment, there’s no date for when Wales’ plan for living with Covid will begin.  

    The minimum self-isolation period for those testing positive became 5 days, down from 7, on January 21.

    Are the rules for travelling changing?

    Yes, along with the rules on when can you come out of Covid isolation, these are changing too. Rules for those looking to go on holiday from the UK are being relaxed on Friday February 11 2022. Anyone coming into the country with two jabs will not have to take any Covid tests. Unvaccinated passengers will not have to isolate either – but they will have to take tests. 

    Everyone, regardless of their vaccination status, will have to fill in a passenger locator form.

    It’s important to note, however, that the living with Covid plan applies to those entering the UK. Every country has the right to refuse entry based on vaccination, testing or other requirements. Spain, for example, has recently announced that they will not admit anyone over 12 without proof of a double vaccination. Ahead of the school half-term, it’s caused chaos for many families looking for a splash of February sunshine.