Ministers brace to live with Covid amid push for five-day isolation
Boris hails ‘great progress’ against Omicron and government is ‘looking at’ cutting isolation to FIVE days as ministers say UK is ‘moving towards living with Covid’ – but PM warns the NHS is STILL under pressure and free tests stay for now
Ministers say the country is ‘moving to a situation’ where ‘we can live with Covid’ but ‘we are not there yet’
Scientists facing growing pressure to sign off cutting Covid isolation period to five days despite high cases
Boris Johnson could lay out a new strategy for the transition away from coronavirus restrictions by March
Boris Johnson today hailed ‘great progress’ against Omicron and said the government is ‘looking at’ cutting the self-isolation period again as ministers insisted Britain is on a path to ‘living with Covid’.
The PM argued that efforts to ‘see off’ the latest variant were working – but warned that the NHS is still under significant pressure and urged people to get booster jabs.
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, he poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests could stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’.
And he tempered his optimism by stressing that ministers will follow the ‘science’ on whether quarantine can be cut again from seven days without causing another deadly spike in infections.
The government and NHS leaders appear increasingly confident that the Omicron wave will not overwhelm services.
In a round of interviews earlier, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’.
However, he stressed that ‘we are not there yet’ and dismissed complaints that dire warnings about the possibility of huge numbers of deaths had been ‘scaremongering’.
Mr Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March.
There is speculation it could see lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations as well as shorter isolation.
But asked whether free LFDs will be abandoned soon, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think that we will use them as long as they are very important. There’s a similar argument to be had about the quarantine period…. The thing to do is look at the science.
‘We’re looking at that and we will act according to the science as we always have.
Mr Johnson insisted ‘Omicron is still out there, it is incredibly contagious’.
‘We’ve got to make sure that we see off Omicron, we are making great progress,’ he said.
‘The number of people who have been boosted is 36 million, 90% of over-50s have been done but there are still millions who need to do it.
‘Loads of people have had two jabs but they haven’t yet come forward for their boost and I say to everybody: join the movement.’
Amid a growing clamour for a further tweak to isolation rules, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi suggested yesterday that a reduction would ease staffing issues, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak is believed to be in favour of the move.
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, Boris Johnson poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests could stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’
Boris Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March
In a round of interviews this morning, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’
Gove jokes he has ‘levelled up’ after being stuck in a lift for 30 mins during interview round
Michael Gove managed to see the funny side today after spending more than half an hour stuck in a lift at the BBC during a round of interviews.
The Levelling Up Secretary joked that many people wanted him ‘incarcerated’ for longer after finally being freed at the corporation’s studios.
Mr Gove was due to appear on the key 8.10 am slot on Radio 4’s Today programme, but the presenters revealed he had been held up by the equipment failure.
BBC staff tweeted photographs of the unfortunate situation and likened it to a scene out of sitcom W1A.
‘After more than half an hour in the lift you have successfully levelled me up,’ Mr Gove quipped when he eventually made it on air.
Tory former chief whip Mark Harper, an influential lockdown-sceptic, urged the PM to declare an end to coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Harper warned Mr Johnson he could suffer an even greater rebellion than when he introduced his Plan B measures if he tries to extend them later this month.
Mr Johnson is unlikely to set out further plans while cases rates remain so high and the NHS strains under significant pressures.
Another 141,472 lab-confirmed cases were announced yesterday, but the figure fell for the fifth day in a row. It is common to have lower numbers at weekends.
Mr Gove said this morning: ‘We are moving to a situation – we’re not there yet – but we are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.
‘But it’s absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet and as the Health Secretary has reminded us, there will be some difficult weeks ahead and that is why we all need to continue to test, continue – if we are positive – to isolate and continue broadly to support the NHS as it goes through a challenging period.
‘But one in which the frontline professionals are doing an amazing job.’
Mr Gove told Sky News it would be for Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid to decide whether to cut the period of Covid isolation to five days from seven.
But he said: ‘We always keep things under review because we’re always guided by the facts, by the science, and by changing circumstances.
‘So I think it’s striking to note that in the United Kingdom overall, particularly in England, we have one of the most open regimes, one of the essentially… one of the most liberal approaches of any country in Europe, but we also need to balance that with a determination to ensure that we are not overwhelming the NHS.’
Mr Gove said the NHS was likely to face pressure for the next two-three weeks, and potentially longer.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Our first responsibility at the moment must be to support the NHS, but you quite rightly legitimately ask if we get through – and at the moment I hope and pray that we will get through this difficult period – then there will be better times ahead.
‘And I think one of the things that we do need to think about is how we live with Covid, how we live with this particular type of coronavirus. There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live, viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread.
‘So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions, and I think for all of us the sooner the better. But we’ve got to keep the NHS safe.’
Mr Gove admitted that he personally had been at the ‘more cautious end’ in the discussions over restrictions, before Christmas but the PM’s judgement had been ‘vindicated’.
‘We always keep that under review but his judgment has been vindicated,’ he said.
The Cabinet minister said it was ‘impossible to predict’ how long lateral flow tests will remain free.
But he said: ‘But it is the case that in this country lateral flow tests are free, unlike in many other jurisdictions, they’re a vital tool in making sure that we can curb the spread of the infection and also that people who are needed to isolate do so.’
Prof Graham Medley, who heads the SPI-M modelling subgroup of SAGE, said the country is transitioning away from ’emergency’ – but warned it will be a process rather than a moment.
‘I think that that transition is absolutely true. It can’t be an emergency forever,’ he told the BBC.
‘So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over. It’s going to fade out and disappear much more slowly than that, I think.’
Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, questioned the continuing work-from-home guidance and said the review of measures due by January 26 is a ‘very good opportunity’ to change them.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme things had been ‘really, really tough for the hospitality industry’.
Ahead of the next review of measures which are currently in place in England under Plan B, he said: ‘I think that’s a very good opportunity to modify those. I mean, for instance, why do people who work in hospitals or work in retail go to work, but office workers are exempted from going to work?
‘So I think we need to look at that very closely and start to withdraw those restrictions.’
Mr Harper, the chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, warned the rebellion if the Prime Minister tries to extend Plan B beyond January 26 could be even larger than the 100 Conservatives who defied him over their introduction last month.
‘I think there will be even more people against it,’ he said in an interview with the Financial Times. ‘I think the intellectual argument now is even weaker.’
King’s College London scientists today suggested that cases in the capital also appeared to be peaking. They said they had dropped by a third within a week, raising hopes that the worst of the outbreak may be over. The figures rely on weekly reports from three quarters of a million people nationally to estimate the prevalence of the virus
Asked when Mr Johnson should formally declare an end to the restrictions, the MP said: ‘If that’s not now, when is it?’
Mr Zahawi insisted yesterday that lateral flow tests will remain free for the time being after the Sunday Times reported their provision could be massively reduced.
He said the UK Health Security Agency will investigate whether the isolation period can be reduced to five days, telling Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: ‘It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others.
‘But I would absolutely be driven by advice from the experts, the scientists, on whether we should move to five days from seven days. What you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.’
Dr Clive Dix, former chairman of Britain’s vaccine taskforce, said mass testing and vaccination should end for all but the most vulnerable after the booster campaign is over.
‘It’s pointless trying to stop infection with it, which is sort of what mass vaccination is all about, because it’s not doing it. We’re seeing a lot of infection,’ he told Channel 4 News.
Dr Dix added: ‘I think that’s a little bit controversial but let’s look at a couple of months’ time, we shouldn’t be mass testing. I think mass testing doesn’t help anybody.
‘I think we need to get to the point where if we have a young person who gets Covid, having been vaccinated, we know they’ve got levels of protection, but just like if they’ve got very bad cold or flu, they stay at home… and when they get better they go back to work.’