Covid may not be over, but England’s public health emergency is. From Thursday, all remaining domestic legal restrictions for Covid-19 will be axed. This includes mandates to self-isolate with a positive test, and the winding down of taxpayer-funded mass testing, though some guidance will remain in place.
This decision is a recognition that the risk of Covid no longer justifies the special treatment of the past near two years – and an acknowledgement that people should be, and arguably always should have been, free to exercise their own personal judgement.
Yes, the virus will continue to circulate, but thankfully few people are now getting seriously ill and even fewer are dying. Indeed, in England and Wales, we now have the lowest Covid death rate in Europe, with overall deaths 8.3% below the five-year average at this time of year.
Despite this reality, the announcement was met with the same politicised fearmongering we’ve heard every time the Government has sought to loosen restrictions.
The British Medical Association, who branded last July’s Freedom Day ‘irresponsible and dangerous’ has warned that the ending of restrictions now is still ‘premature’. Independent SAGE, who called Freedom Day ‘a dangerous and unethical experiment’, has urged members to sign an open letter to Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, claiming the current approach is ‘perilous’ and ‘a recipe for further adaptation of the virus’.
Ironically, it may well be that the supposedly ‘premature’ lifting of lockdown restrictions in the summer is what helped us to get to the stage now where the Government is confident enough for us to start living with Covid.
The political criticisms have focused largely on the financial support the Government is giving for testing. In the run-up to yesterday’s Commons debate, Keir Starmer said ending free testing was a ‘mistake’, though he did have the sense to acknowledge that it cannot continue forever. A typically agitated Ian Blackford, called the Prime Minister’s strategy ‘reckless’.
Of course, testing will be needed in some settings, and the Government has acknowledged this. But shelling out billions a month on swabbing often asymptomatic people is clearly unsustainable.
It’s a system that cost the taxpayer £2bn last month alone, and an eye-watering £2.8bn in December. With over 6 million people waiting for NHS treatment, can anyone honestly say this is a good use of money? It’s also curious that those who were so keen to express their outrage over the £37bn price tag for the Test & Trace system – including the leader of the opposition – seem equally outraged now that testing is being wound down.
It’s true, as Chris Whitty said in the press conference last night, that there will be new variants, but why do we have to assume they will be more virulent? And even in the case of new variants, should the priority not be to accelerate vaccine updates, rather than continuing restrictions on people’s day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, this day was always going to come. We cannot live on a permanent war footing, always expecting the worst. At this stage of the pandemic, it seems entirely rational that with most people triple-vaccinated and suffering only mild symptoms (if any) from the virus, that we stop unnecessary mass testing and the knee-jerk panic that has too often gone with it.
As a country, we need to get back to freedom being the default position – where the onus is on those demanding restrictions to justify them, not vice versa. As it always should have been.
Looking to the situation in Canada, Australia and New Zealand it’s easy to feel thankful that we are now back to normal. It’s easy, too, to forget just how restrictive living under Covid regulations was in this country – and the almost abusive relationship we had with the Government as it constantly shifted the goalposts on Covid mandates, the impacts of which will be felt for years, if not decades, to come.
The fearmongering will continue but the Government has finally made the right decision. We must now turn our attention to ensuring we never have to endure another lockdown again.
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