As the last restrictions are lifted, Rosa Hodgkin finds a worrying lack of detail, and an excessive dose of optimism, in the government's plan for living with Covid
On Monday the prime minister set out the government’s plan for living with Covid, ending all remaining legal restrictions and stopping free testing for most from April. The announcement won Boris Johnson some favourable front pages and much cheer from a key constituency on the Conservative backbenches, but his plan lacks detail in important areas.
The government has clearly decided to try to move quickly to an approach in which Covid is treated similarly to other infectious diseases, emphasising personal responsibility and reducing the amount the state spends on Covid mitigations. It is an optimistic view of the development of the virus.
Covid restrictions may have ended, but Covid has not. The government’s plan says at various points that there will be new guidance but it has not yet been published. For example, it says that guidance on ‘steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people’ will be updated from 1 April, but with no further detail beyond this.
As the government moves towards an increasing emphasis on personal responsibility, guidance should set clear expectations to help people and employers make difficult judgements based on the evidence regarding the impact on public health. If self-isolation remains the aim, even if it is not legally required, that should be clearly stated and justified. The guidance will need to be communicated strongly and have real persuasive force.
Although the government has committed to maintaining access to paid-for testing, and free testing for the clinically vulnerable, it has not set out any mitigations for those unable to afford tests. And it has revoked pandemic changes to sick pay and isolation support payments.
The impetus to remove these measures is clear – the cost of the testing programme has been enormous. But the system the government is putting in place is not designed to encourage, or even enable, many on low incomes to find out if they have Covid and then if they do, to take time off work. If the government’s aim is still for people to reduce social contacts if they have Covid, it is undermined from the start.
Johnson suggested that the UK could learn from Germany, where people are more disciplined about not going into work when unwell. But sick pay is much more generous in Germany. If the government wants to move to a situation where people reduce social contacts regardless of the infection they have, which would make testing less important, it should look again at the reforms to sick pay that we have advocated throughout the pandemic.
The plan says that the government will maintain surveillance measures like the ONS survey as well as testing and vaccination capacity that could be revived quickly in the case of a new variant, something that Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance also emphasised at Monday’s press conference. This is crucial given the uncertainty about the future development of the virus.
But the plan does not set out which interventions the government would consider at different thresholds. Nor does it cover how the impact of the upcoming changes will be assessed, what outcome the government anticipates from different measures, or the steps it would take if its expectations are not met. Setting this out would help to clarify that the future is uncertain and that the direction of travel might not only be one way. Vallance quoted a colleague saying that the future with Covid will be like “celebrating because the sun is shining – but keep your umbrella with you”. The government is rightly welcoming the sunny weather, but its umbrella still has holes.
- https://twitter.com/paulwaugh/status/1495845691431784453; https://twitter.com/resfoundation/status/1495816157978312705?s=20&t=DuJQPmHjyp7l_jzQRfulbA&…;