Boris Johnson confirms plan to end legal requirement for Covid cases to isolate

British prime minister Boris Johnson departs 10 Downing Street for parliament in London on Monday. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

People in England who test positive for Covid-19 will no longer be legally required to isolate from Thursday and free universal testing will end there in April under Boris Johnson’s plan for “living with Covid”.

The prime minister detailed the strategy for England to the House of Commons late on Monday afternoon after a cabinet disagreement thought to centre on funding for future surveillance of the virus.

Those who receive a positive Covid-19 test will still be advised to stay at home for at least five days but will not be obliged to under law, under the plans subject to parliamentary approval.

Routine contact tracing will also end in England on Thursday, as will self-isolation payments and the legal obligation for individuals to tell their employers about their requirement to isolate.

Changes to statutory sick pay and employment support allowance designed to help people through the pandemic will end on March 24th.

People aged 75 and over, the immunosuppressed and those living in care homes will be offered another Covid-19 booster vaccine this spring under the plans.

Mr Johnson warned the “pandemic is not over”, with the queen’s recent positive test for Covid a “reminder this virus has not gone away”.

But he told MPs it was time to “move from government restrictions to personal responsibility”, with “sufficient levels of immunity to complete the transition” from laws to relying on vaccines and treatments.

“It is time that we got our confidence back. We don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others. We can rely on that sense of responsibility towards one another,” Mr Johnson said.

“So let us learn to live with this virus and continue protecting ourselves and others without restricting our freedoms.”

Funding row

The UK cabinet was due to sign off on the plan on Monday morning, but the meeting was pushed back to the afternoon at the last minute, with the delay understood to centre on health secretary Sajid Javid’s demands over how elements of it would be funded.

Ministers including education secretary Nadhim Zahawi and defence secretary Ben Wallace had already arrived in Number 10 before the postponement.

The chaos surrounding the policy, which should help shore up Mr Johnson’s support on the Tory backbenches by ending the remaining legal restrictions in a nation that has lived under measures for nearly two years, came as the prime minister’s authority was undermined by the so-called partygate claims of alleged lockdown-busting gatherings at Downing Street and Whitehall.

But Number 10 ultimately said the cabinet gave the strategy its “unanimous backing” after a virtual meeting in the afternoon.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the strategy was “not a plan to live well” with Covid and will leave the nation “vulnerable”.

“As a nation there is no doubt we need to move on from Covid. People need to know their liberties are returning and returning for good,” Mr Starmer said.

“But this is a half-baked announcement from a government paralysed by chaos and incompetence. It is not a plan to live well with Covid.”

Devolved administrations

The devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have set their own Covid-19 restrictions, but the amount of money they have to spend on testing will flow from decisions made by the UK government.

Ahead of Mr Johnson’s announcement on Monday, devolved leaders condemned any move to scale back the testing regime that cost nearly £16 billion (about €19 billion) this financial year.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said it would be “premature and reckless” to wind back the programme, adding: “Testing has played a pivotal role in breaking chains of transmission and as a surveillance tool helping us detect and respond to emerging variants. It’s essential that this continues.”

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said “significant dismantling” of the testing regime would be “inexcusable negligence given ongoing risks”.

Mr Johnson was scheduled to hold a press conference alongside England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance at 7pm. – PA/Reuters