Scrapping COVID rules a ‘calculated risk’ that relies heavily on public behaviour | UK News

Well, that’s all folks. The last remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England will be removed by the end of the week.

Free testing for most of us goes on 1 April and COVID provisions on sick pay the week before.

The government has signalled for weeks that this moment was coming. And it has still left many who have been on the front line of dealing with the pandemic stunned.

Live COVID updates as fourth jab to be offered to over 75s, care home residents and the vulnerable

However, I understand some in government had been pushing for an earlier end to free testing and that its continuation through March should help soften the impact of the end to COVID restrictions.

And impacts there could be. Infection rates of around one in 20 people are still more than twice as high as in the first winter wave of coronavirus.

New variants have, and will continue to, change the dynamics of the outbreak and while the vaccines are doing an incredible job at protecting most of us from COVID, around 150 people a day are still dying with COVID on their death certificate.

Timeline of end of COVID restrictions

From today:

• Guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing removed

From 24 February:

• Adults and children who test positive will still be advised to self-isolate but the legal requirement will be removed

• Vaccinated contacts of positive cases will no longer be asked to test for seven days

• There will no longer be a legal requirement for close contacts who are not vaccinated to self-isolate

• Contact tracing will also come to an end

From 24 March:

• COVID provisions attached to statutory sick pay will be removed

• Wider guidance on workplace safety that been changed for COVID will be updated

From 1 April:

• Free universal testing will be scrapped and will instead be targeted at the most vulnerable

• Government officials expected the cost of a box of seven lateral flow tests to settle at around £20

• The use of voluntarily COVID status certification will also no longer be recommended

The government’s SAGE committee didn’t mince its words when it considered the impact of phasing out free testing, ending legal self-isolation, and dropping additional sick pay to make it easier for people stay away from work if symptomatic.

“There is significant potential for transmission to increase if behaviours revert rapidly to pre-pandemic norms and mitigations are removed,” it stated in its most recently available minutes.

Read more: Next variant ‘could be more severe’ with future winters ‘tricky’

Most public health experts would have preferred to delay some of these changes, and phase each in more slowly.

But this is why it’s is a significant moment. Throughout the pandemic the SAGE committee has been asked to advise on COVID-19 risks. The job of looking after the wider interests of the country rests with the government.

With the cost of testing at around £2bn a month, more than six million people now waiting for NHS treatment and a burgeoning cost of living crisis, COVID is no longer the only emergency in town.

The government is taking a calculated risk, relying on guidance for all of us to self-isolate if we have COVID symptoms leaving vaccines to act as our only real defence against COVID-19.

The additional booster vaccine programme announced on Monday will upgrade that insurance policy. But the impact – at least in the short term – relies heavily on our behaviour.

Read more: Over-75s and vulnerable adults to be offered fourth COVID jab in spring

If we slowly adapt to whatever life looks like in a post pandemic world we might not even notice COVID-19 receding into the past.

But if in the words of the outgoing deputy CMO Sir Jonathan Van Tam, we now decide to “tear the pants out of it”, we could see a nasty resurgence of infections and all the problems that brings.

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