And with that, Boris Johnson ended all remaining pandemic measures in England. Those who test positive for Covid will no longer have to isolate by law from this Thursday – and from April will not even be advised to stay at home if infected. The £500 self-isolation payment for some people on lower incomes will end. Meanwhile, free testing for the vast majority of the public will end from 1 April, apart from some symptomatic clinically vulnerable and very elderly people. It will soon be entirely legal to test positive – if you’ve even got that far – for coronavirus and then wander into a packed pub.
This was less a plan to “live with coronavirus”, and more to simply ignore it. Ministers offered no epidemiological evidence for pulling Covid protections this winter, with experts warning it could cause a rapid rise in the virus.
It would not be overly cynical to suggest that Johnson, wounded by “partygate”, is attempting to win the support of his libertarian backbenchers. Rishi Sunak is said to have added to the pressure on fiscal grounds, pushing to slash the Covid budget by as much as 90%. This is public health policy founded in politics, not science.
The lessons the pandemic taught us – that preventive action and strong public messaging not only save lives but reduce the need for harsher restrictions further down the line – are, not for the first time, being wilfully ignored. The front pages on Monday lauding the Queen for “powering through” Covid in many ways sum up England’s new stance on the virus: a public health crisis can be tackled with personal responsibility mixed with the good old blitz spirit.
It is the millions of clinically vulnerable people who will be the collateral damage. A few days after all England’s coronavirus measures end it will be two years since the shielding programme to protect those at high risk of hospitalisation or death began. It is a bleak anniversary gift from ministers. Many high-risk people, some of whom are not protected by the vaccine owing to their immune systems, feel they must now return to shutting themselves away at home – and with none of the financial or practical support available in 2020.
One woman in her 60s, whose husband has asthma and diabetes, told me she already barely leaves the house, and the removal of Covid measures will see the couple’s life become worse. “It means I will never be able to even walk down the street without being terrified.” As another woman with a blood disorder, asthma and ME put it: “It’s confined me to never seeing anyone or going anywhere again.”
To live with coronavirus – to really live with it – requires action from the government, including targeted help for clinically vulnerable people, such as access to antiviral treatments and employment protection; better ventilation in schools and offices; mask mandates during surges; and taking seriously the threat of long Covid.
No matter what the government says, this also requires free and regular testing while infection rates are still high. Throughout the pandemic, lateral flow tests and PCRs have played a central part in monitoring outbreaks and reducing transmission: an imperfect but precious reassurance for high-risk people that enabled them to see a friend or simply let an electrician into the house. Simultaneously ending free tests along with the requirement to isolate will naturally discourage people from checking if that new cough is Covid, with research suggesting it might even give some the message it is acceptable to socialise despite having symptoms. Many others will want to take a test but won’t be able to afford to; it’s estimated taking regular lateral flow tests will now cost more than £500 a year.
Recent years have seen the obscene choice of “eating v heating” for families in poverty. At a time of food and energy bills rising, ending free lateral flow tests will surely unleash “eating v meeting” – low-income people having to choose between buying food or getting tested to be able to see their nan.
Cabinet disagreements mean limited eligibility for free tests has not yet been decided but it’s thought it will be restricted to a “small number of at-risk groups” – possibly the over-80s – and care home staff. It’s vital younger clinically vulnerable people are not abandoned in an aged-based approach; lifestyle habits mean a 30-year-old teacher with a lung transplant may actually be at higher risk than a pensioner. Similarly, there is concern many pre-existing conditions will be missed out; ministers refer to a “small number” of at-risk people getting free lateral flow tests, but the shielding programme alone contained 3.7 million people in England. Besides, such selection misses the point of mass testing: clinically vulnerable people aren’t protected because they can easily check if they have coronavirus, but because everyone around them can too.
“Living with Covid” also requires tackling the fact many sick workers can’t afford to isolate. A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warns that low sick pay rates and limited eligibility criteria will make it hard for many to take time off work with symptoms. The UK’s statutory sick pay is one of the lowest in Europe, while the study warns many marginalised people – including ethnic minorities and people on low incomes – are not even able to access basic levels of sick pay. Without the back-up of a legal right to isolate, decent sick pay or isolation payments, workers are even more vulnerable to pressure applied by unscrupulous bosses to turn up to work even if they have Covid.
Away from the worst of social media and the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, most people are actually kind and reasonable and have willingly made sacrifices – often significant ones – over the past two years for the collective safety of their neighbours. Many will continue to, despite the new announcement. But a pandemic cannot be tackled by individual will alone. It requires leadership, something Johnson is all too lacking in.
We all wish to see a time when no Covid measures are needed. But pretending we can magically return to a pre-pandemic normal in the next few weeks will not make it so – it will simply lead to a “new normal” with more anxiety, illness and, tragically, death.
Johnson had a choice: roll out a programme of smart, non-invasive public health measures or allow the virus to spread unmonitored and uncontrolled. Shamefully, the prime minister is more interested in saving his own skin than people’s lives.