I want to extend my best wishes to HM The Queen for a speedy recovery from Covid.
The virus has not gone away. However, the efforts we have made as a country mean we can move from government restrictions to personal responsibilities.
The UK was the first country to administer an approved vaccine and the first to vaccinate 50% of our population. The UK was also the first major European nation to boost 50% of our population and without our vaccination programme we would not be in such a strong position. I would still encourage anyone who has not yet had their booster or any other dose of the vaccine to book their appointment here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-vaccination/book-coronavirus-vaccination/
Whilst the pandemic is not over, we have now passed the peak of the omicron wave, with cases falling, and hospitalisations in England now fewer than 10,000 and continuing to decline. Importantly the link between infection and serious illness has been seriously weakened due to the success of our vaccination roll out. Over 71% of all adults in England are now boosted, including 93% of those aged 70 or over.
The Government is making the transition away from imposed mandates to individual responsibility.
The next steps will be governed by 4 principles, these are:
Remove all remaining domestic restriction in law from 24th February, including self-isolation for those with Covid-19. This includes the end of self-isolation support payments, although covid provisions for statutory sick pay can still be claimed for a further month and more details will be set out in due course.
An end to routine contact tracing. Close contacts who are fully vaccinated and those under the age of 18 will no longer need to test daily for 7 days.
These is also an end to the requirement to self-isolate for those who have not been fully vaccinated.
Those who contract Covid-19 are still advised to self-isolate and this will be subject to review from April 1st.
We can only take these steps because levels of immunity are so high, and deaths are so low. Testing for omicron especially, is less valuable in preventing serious illness than it has been for previous variants.
We should be proud of our largest per capita testing capacity in the world. The testing, tracing and isolation budget in 2020-21 exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office; it has cost a further £15.7 billion so far this financial year, and £2 billion in January alone, at the height of the omicron wave. This cost is no longer proportionate nor justifiable when considered against the public health benefit.
On the 1st of April free testing comes to an end for symptomatic and asymptomatic cases who aren’t clinically extremely vulnerable or elderly, the details of these groups will be set out in due course.
The NHS App will continue for international travel, however its domestic use as vaccine status certification will no longer be recommended by the Government from April 1st.
The Government will also expire all temporary provisions in the Coronavirus Act 2020. Of the original 40, 20 have already expired and 16 will expire on 24 March. The remaining four, relating to innovations in public service, will expire six months later, after we have made those improvements permanent via other means.
A spring booster dose will be offered to those aged over 75, those resident in care homes, and those over 12 who are immunosuppressed. The UK has also built a stockpile of over 5 million anti-viral drug doses – the largest per capita supply in Europe.
Targeted vaccines and treatments will continue, and SAGE will continue to monitor the evolution of the pandemic, particularly new variants which may be more severe than Omicron. The ONS survey will provide a granular level of detail which can be used to track the developments in the national Covid-19 picture.
SAGE has warned of future changes and the possibility of new variants. Therefore, maintaining the capacity to respond going forward will be important as we enter the summer and the infrastructure which has been built up to support our fight against Covid-19 until now is essential. This will allow the country to maintain capabilities to ramp up testing if needed in the future.
To protect us all from the virus and new variants which may yet emerge it is crucial we vaccinate the world. I am pleased that the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to donate 100 million vaccine doses by June to meet our commitments – part of 1 billion doses pledged by developed nations.
Our national bio security strategy will be refreshed to protect against new pandemics which develop naturally, originate from lab leaks, or from state and non-state actors. We will continue to work alongside our international partners at the UN and G7 on a new pandemic treaty to make safe and effective diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines available within the first 100 days of a future pandemic threat being identified. Pharmaceutical innovations and interventions will be our first line of defence going forward. Our vaccines task force continues alongside the therapeutics task force to find new treatments for Covid-19 and other diseases.
Covid will not disappear totally so we cannot go on forever with restrictions, continuing restrictions will take a toll on our society, physical and mental wellbeing, children’s education and life changes, and economy. I believe that the time is right to take these steps to move to “living with Covid”.
We are protected by the biggest vaccination drive in our history, and we have the capability to respond to a resurgence or new variant as they emerge. Vaccination still remains our greatest weapon in the fight against Covid-19, those who have not yet been vaccinated should do so and speak to their GP if they have questions or concerns.