From today all Covid Plan B measures will be removed. People will no longer be asked to work from home or required to wear a face covering in indoor settings, and venues and events will not be required to use Covid passes. More radically, ministers are hoping next month to remove mandatory isolation for those who test positive for coronavuris.
Given the UK’s high levels of immunity, these changes are justified – and many people will feel excited about the prospect of their lives returning to some sort of pre-Covid normality. But others will feel some anxiety. Rather than a “big bang”, the government should plan for a period of transition that gives people the time to adjust, including by supporting a continued role for testing and allowing local guidance on masks.
The UK is well protected against Covid. More than 90% of over-12s have had at least one jab, and almost two thirds have had their booster. By now, most people have probably also had the virus itself (the official figure of 13m is a significant undercount). While hospitals have been put under huge pressure, the Omicron wave did not turn into a high number of severe cases and deaths from Covid in the way some feared.
There are still threats ahead. Having fallen sharply case rates have now plateaued at around 90,000 cases per day (still much higher than pre-Omicron), and the impact of removing of Plan B measures is uncertain. While the UK as a whole is well protected, a minority including the unvaccinated and the immunocompromised are not. Experts think people can still get Long Covid from Omicron. And it remains reasonably likely that further variants of concern will emerge abroad – and it is possible that a more virulent variant could require the return of some restrictions. The government will need to remain vigilant.
But on balance there is a strong case for phasing out crude legal requirements, for people to return to the office, and for putting the UK on a clear path to treating Covid in the way it does other viruses.
Despite the ending of legal restrictions, however, a ‘big bang’ would be the wrong approach. It may be politically tempting, but there remain risks that need to be balanced through guidance and other measures, and people will need time to adapt. The government should help people to adjust and support those who feel uneasy.
One obvious way to do this would be to preserve access to free lateral flow tests (LFTs). While justification for expensive PCRs will fall away as mandatory isolation is removed, LFTs are incredibly cheap for their utility in both picking up infections and, more widely, making people feel comfortable to go about their lives and do things like visit elderly relatives. They have cost around £6bn in public money so far, a tiny figure in the context of other Covid spending. Their wide availability has been a UK success story; notably the US has (finally) just followed suit, while Germany was forced to make them free again after a spike in cases. At some point people will need to pay for them – perhaps when cases and hospitalisations fall below a certain threshold. But removing them abruptly – a proposal that was briefed then denied – would be short-sighted.
A second step would be for the government to make clear that masks, though no longer required by law, can still play an important role in reducing risks and making people feel safe. Headteachers (and pupils) in areas with high cases are justified in their concerns about the prime minister’s instruction to drop masks in schools – not least because lots of staff getting Covid could quickly lead to the much greater harm of a return to home schooling. A good principle would be to allow decisions about how quickly to adapt to be made locally (in this case by local public health directors), where conditions are best understood. Sadiq Khan’s judgement that Londoners should continue to wear masks on public transport, while removing the threat of fines for those who don’t, seems a reasonable balance for the transition.
The biggest judgement the government has to make – and the real test of any ‘return to normal’ – is mandatory isolation (a debate also going on in other countries). So far, it has indicated this will be removed in a month’s time, though it hasn’t made clear what guidance (if any) will replace it.
It is obvious that the UK should want to remove the policy – it is costly and crude in terms of the impact it has on people’s lives and livelihoods, and that cost is harder to justify when the threat that someone with Covid poses to others is much reduced. But that threat is not nil – and people might reasonably feel uncomfortable about the idea that those with symptoms are moving unmasked among them.
It is fair to point out that people with flu are not legally required to isolate. But equally, the pandemic has raised questions about whether it was ever sensible that many people felt pressure to come into the office even when they were ill. Once the law on mandatory isolation changes the government should provide clear expert guidance on how people who test positive should behave. And more widely, for all the talk of a return to pre-pandemic normality, one positive legacy of Covid pandemic should be a serious debate about how to reform policies and change culture in the workplace and elsewhere to help people keep themselves, and others, healthy.