Boris Johnson promised to ‘finally give people back their freedom’ as he announced plans for how the country will ‘live with Covid’.
After two years of restrictions – including three national lockdowns – the PM has swept away the last of the remaining laws designed to halt the spread of the virus.
Speaking in the Commons, he hailed it as a major moment after ‘one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history’.
In a wide-ranging announcement, the PM confirmed it will no longer be a legal requirement to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid from Thursday in England.
Instead, the laws are being replaced by guidance that focuses on ‘personal responsibility’ and stresses people should take care not to infect others.
Contact tracing will also be scrapped, while the government will remove the coronavirus provisions attached to statutory sick pay on 24 March.
Mr Johnson also announced a timetable for scaling back the UK’s vast testing network, which is costing more than £2 billion a month.
Lateral flow test kits will no longer be offered to the majority of households for free from April 1.
However, the oldest age groups and those classed as vulnerable will still be invited to order tests for free.
From the same date, the use of voluntarily Covid status certification will no longer be recommended, although the NHS app will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel.
Guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to carry out twice weekly asymptomatic testing will be removed today.
Over-75s will be given a fourth Covid jab this spring to top up their protection to help combat any increased risk from the changes.
The PM told MPs: ‘Until April 1 we will still advise people who test positive to stay at home but after that 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.’
He credited the success of the vaccine programme and the milder nature of the Omicron variant as proof that it was safe for him to tear up the rules.
‘Covid will not suddenly disappear so those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come’, Mr Johnson said.
‘This Government does not believe that is right or necessary. Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing and on the life chances of our children, and we do not need to pay that cost any longer.’
Opposition figures and experts have signaled their alarm as the changes made the UK an outlier in a world where Covid rules are still the norm.
How does the UK compare? Covid rules across the world
- You must show a vaccination pass to access most social and cultural activities – a booster dose is needed to count as fully vaccinated.
- From February 28, masks or face coverings will no longer be required indoors. However, they will still be mandatory on public transport.
- You must isolate for seven days if you test positive but can leave quarantine after five days with a negative test result. You don’t have to isolate after contact with a positive case but should take tests.
- Leaders agreed last week to end almost all remaining restrictions on March 20, but mask rules will remain.
- Until now, unvaccinated people have been banned from restaurants, bars, and nonessential shops.
- Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz still aims to make vaccinations mandatory.
- Those who test positive should self isolate for 14 days or until they get a negative PCR test result
- Rules differ state-by-state and some have mask mandates or rules on getting vaccinated before accessing certain services.
- In New York, people aged 12 and older and now required to show proof that they have received at least one vaccine dose in order to enjoy indoor activities including dining, fitness, and entertainment.
- Washington DC has mandatory indoor mask requirements and proof of vaccination is needed for most indoor establishments.
- Positive cases and their close contacts should self isolate for five days, unless they have symptoms.
- Australia has reopened its borders to foreign tourists today but still has restrictions in place once you get there.
- You need to isolate if you have Covid, or have been in close contact with someone who tests positive.
- Other restrictions are set at a national level for example in Victoria face masks are required indoors and you need to have been vaccinated to attend bars, nightclubs, gyms and most other venues.
- Those who have tested positive and their close contacts have to isolate for seven days or face being fined or imprisoned.
Labour has accused the PM of being ‘reckless’ and trying to distract attention from the ‘partygate’ investigation that has dogged his premiership for months.
Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had promised a plan for dealing with Covid, but ‘all we’ve got is chaos’.
Demanding the scientific evidence behind the decision, he asked: ‘What confidence can the public have that this is the right approach?’
‘Free tests can’t continue forever… but if you’re 2-1 up with ten minutes to go, you don’t sub off one of your best defenders.’
There have been repeated calls to publish the advice that led to the decisions after key scientific figures urged caution in proceeding with ending quarantine rules.
It is believed that this morning there were last-minute tensions between the Department of Health and the Treasury over how much funding would be available for the free tests that will be offered to vulnerable groups.
There has been some concern that doing away with mass testing will make it harder to spot new variants, as the country did with the Omicron wave late last year.
Mr Johnson admitted today Sage had warned him ‘there is considerable uncertainty about the future path of pandemic’ – but insisted the UK could monitor this risk.
‘They are certain there will be new variants and it is very possible they will be worse than Omicron’, he said.
‘So we will maintain our resilience to manage and respond to these risks, including our world-leading ONS survey which will allow us to continue tracking the virus in granular detail, with regional and age breakdowns helping us to spot surges as and where they happen.’
The Tory leader will later hold a press conference alongside the chief medical officer for England, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, at 7pm.
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