The Prime Minister has announced that all remaining domestic Covid restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive test result, will be scrapped from Thursday 24 February.
With this, Boris Johnson announced the publication of the ‘Living with Covid’ plan, which outlines how the government plans to “learn to live with the virus … without restricting our freedoms.”
The government says that since the Omicron variant is “milder” than previous variants and because the vast majority of the population is now vaccinated, we can instead rely on continuation of the vaccine programme, testing and new treatments to keep the public safe.
Free testing to end for general public
As part of the plan, routine contact tracing will end and PCR and lateral flow tests will no longer be free to the general public from 1 April.
Self-isolation support payments will also be scrapped and the use of Covid passports for event entry will no longer be recommended (although they will still be available for international travel).
The scaling back of testing is largely due to funding issue, with Johnson revealing that £2 billion was spent on Covid testing in January alone. Tests will still, however, be available to vulnerable populations, such as those with disabilities and long-term conditions, if they are symptomatic.
It was also announced yesterday that over 75s and people who are immunocompromised will be offer a fourth Covid booster dose in the coming weeks following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Seven in 10 disabled people feel they are being left behind
However, even with these added measures in place, the national disability charity Sense is warning that the government’s decision to scrap all restrictions will cause fear and anxiety among disabled people.
Research by the charity shows that seven in 10 disabled people feel they are being left behind, with six in 10 saying they are fearful of going out and socialising due to the risk of Covid.
With restrictions and free testing set to end and infection rates still high, Sense are concerned many disabled people and those in at in-risk groups will feel forced to stay at home and become more isolated.
Ciara Lawrence, who has a learning disability and works as Mencap's Big Plan Engagement Lead, said: “I feel worried about all the restrictions lifting and afraid there will be more deaths for people with a learning disability. The vaccine roll out has been brilliant but Covid is not over, it is still around.
“The restrictions, especially on face coverings and self-isolation ending, make me feel very nervous and this can make people like me feel unsafe within their communities. It feels like the government have forgotten about people with a learning disability again.”
Disabled people's needs have "often been overlooked" throughout the pandemic
To ensure they are heard by the government, disabled people, families and campaigners went to Westminster to highlight their experience of the pandemic.
Here, they handed over a petition signed by more than 38,000 people calling for disabled people to be put at the heart of the Covid-19 inquiry.
Richard Kramer, Sense Chief Executive, said disabled people's needs have "often been overlooked throughout the pandemic, and it’s no surprise they feel forgotten, and are worried about being left behind."
“They must be heard at the inquiry. We owe it to them to investigate the decisions that have led to such a disastrous outcome. This is our opportunity to learn from what has happened and move forward with a commitment to tackling the inequalities disabled people face," he added.
The strategy "neglects some of the most vulnerable people in society"
Health leaders are also warning that the government’s strategy doesn’t do enough to protect at-risk groups, including those with disabilities and long-term conditions.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), said the plan “fails to protect those at highest risk of harm from Covid-19, and neglects some of the most vulnerable people in society.”
He added that providing free tests to clinically vulnerable people (and only once they develop symptoms and are potentially very unwell) and not those who come into contact with them is “completely illogical, as the priority should be protecting them from infection in the first place.”
The same is also true for staff working in residential settings, like care homes, who will only be tested if they have symptoms, increasing the likelihood of passing on the virus to those they care for.
While Dr Nagpaul says the introduction of the new booster programme is “sensible”, he warns we must not rely solely on vaccination to protect the nation, and protections (such as the provision of facemasks and self-isolation requirements) should remain in place to protect at-risk groups.