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Prime Minister Boris Johnson followed Denmark on Monday in scrapping most Covid-19 restrictions for England. His “living with Covid” plan shifts the emphasis from government intervention to personal responsibility.
The UK leader announced that from Thursday the government will no longer require people to self-isolate if they have had a positive Covid-19 test. The colossally expensive contact-tracing programme will be scrapped, and unvaccinated people will not have to self-isolate on coming into contact with someone who has the coronavirus.
A swathe of other restrictions, which were guidance rather than law, are also being lifted. Schools can dispense with swabbing staff and students, there’s no pressure on sports venues or clubs to ask for vaccine status, and elaborate advice on workplace safety will be changed.
Since most of these restrictions were due to expire on March 24, the accelerated timing is politically expedient. The prime minister is fighting to change the subject from the “Partygate” scandal that has angered his Conservative Party and sent poll ratings in the wrong direction. Many of his MPs, who would vote in a leadership contest, were deeply opposed to lockdown restrictions so it does not hurt to give them something to cheer about for a change.
And yet the move was also grounded in clear logic. Vaccinations and natural immunity levels, antivirals, treatments and the less severe Omicron variant have changed the risk profile of Covid-19. Where those exist together, we are no longer defenceless against infection. Many of the measures that are ending had also grown unenforceable, inefficient or unnecessary.
But how “living with Covid” works in practice will depend on how responsibly individuals, employers and the government hold up their end of the new deal.
Johnson — who early in the pandemic suggested the Covid-19 restrictions would end in a few months — knew better than to hoist a “mission accomplished” banner. Britain still has significant numbers of people in hospital with the virus and areas where infection levels are high. A new variant could emerge that is more transmissible, better able to escape the immunity offered by vaccines, more severe or any combination of these.
Living with Covid-19, then, doesn’t mean ignoring it. How individuals change their behaviours will depend on personal assessments of risk and thresholds for tolerance. Most of us have banked some lessons about staying safe that will continue to guide us for a while.
Gone are the days when workers powered through illness at the office. It’s high cold and flu season but I can’t remember the last time I heard someone with a hacking cough around me apart from an apologetic young house guest. And though many people have ditched their masks, I wouldn’t expect them to disappear as long as the virus is around.
“Masking is such a simple and cheap way to prevent the spread of not just Covid-19 but other respiratory diseases,” says Bloomberg Intelligence pharmaceutical analyst Sam Fazeli. “Why wouldn’t you want to wear one in busy public places like trains?”
As the government steps back, employers can no longer hide behind official rules and guidance; they will need to decide how much flexibility they want to give workers and what mitigation measures are reasonable in offices. Ventilation and measuring air quality have become indispensable demands.
Johnson’s government will focus on detecting changes in the virus and infection patterns, responding quickly and protecting the vulnerable using extra vaccine doses and other pharmacological interventions. Those are the right objectives, but legislators cannot drop the ball. Britain’s broader ability to withstand a more dangerous variant or future pandemic will also depend on adding greater capacity, particularly in medical staff, to the National Health Service.
One worrying sign is the decision to end provision of free lateral flow tests for most people. Free rapid tests were a major factor in giving people the ability to control transmission while enjoying relative freedoms. With a box of seven tests expected to cost £20, many will no longer bother to swab before activities and gatherings. Many who are also carers for vulnerable people will find it harder to test, increasing the risk of transmission. Similarly, the removal of self-isolation support payments for those on low incomes will mean that advice to stay home with Covid-19 is likely to be ignored. Britain’s level of statutory sick pay is one of the lowest in Europe.
When Johnson declared the restoration of liberties as a “moment of pride for our nation and a source of hope” for the future, he wasn’t wrong. Despite a disastrous string of early pandemic decisions, the successes of the vaccine rollout, mass testing, genomic sequencing and virus surveillance have been triumphs that make earlier lockdown restrictions unnecessary now.
Just a few days before the new plan was unveiled, Buckingham Palace announced that 95-year-old Queen Elizabeth tested positive for Covid-19. There was concern, but not panic. She was experiencing mild symptoms and planned to continue with “light duties” over Zoom, the palace said. The monarch neatly modelled the remarkable achievements of the past year and the continued need for vigilance, a picture of how we live with Covid-19.
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.