Boris Johnson is set to declare Thursday is Covid Freedom Day with all curbs – including legal self-isolation – to end in England.
The PM will give an upbeat assessment as he unveil his ‘Living with Covid Plan’ tomorrow, insisting vaccines and new treatments can be relied upon to keep the public safe.
Over-75s and the most vulnerable are expected to be offered a fourth jab within weeks to help heighten their protection.
As cases continue to tumble – down 25 per cent week-on-week – Mr Johnson is also announcing a timetable to end free lateral flow and PCR tests which are costing the taxpayer £2billion a week.
In a compromise between the Treasury and Department of Health, free tests are still likely to be available for more vulnerable and older age groups.
However, Labour has accused the premier of trying to distract from the Partygate scandal, saying he is ‘declaring victory before the war is over’.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting compared axing free tests to ‘being 2-1 up with 10 mins left of play and subbing your best defender’.
The British Medical Association has raised alarm that ending Covid rules is ‘premature’ and ‘not based on current evidence’.
Mr Johnson will risk the wrath of some Tories by refusing to say when red tape will be removed for UK citizens travelling abroad.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (pictured) is poised to unveil his ‘Living with Covid Plan’, with Thursday earmarked as Freedom Day from virus-related rules
NHS chiefs call for free virus tests and self-isolation rules to stay
Free Covid tests and self-isolation rules must continue, NHS leaders have said in a last ditch attempt to persuade Boris Johnson against dropping all remaining restrictions next week.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of NHS Confederation – an organisation that represents leaders across the health service, warned uncertainty over long-term immunity from vaccines and previous infection and the risk of future variants meant it was still too early to drop the final measures.
He urged ministers ‘now is not the time to take risks’, saying the last restrictions should only be relaxed gradually and on the basis of evidence to avoid any sudden flare-ups, even though cases, hospitalisations and deaths have all been trending downwards for weeks as the Omicron wave recedes.
Calling for the brakes to be slammed onto No10’s ‘living with Covid’ plans, Mr Taylor – Tony Blair’s former policy adviser – said: ‘The Government cannot wave a magic wand and pretend the threat has disappeared entirely.’ He added the move to exit the acute phase of the pandemic ‘must not be driven by political expediency’.
Other healthcare leaders also urged the Prime Minister to re-consider his plans today, saying he should ease the last restrictions ‘gradually’.
Sources say the issue of passenger locator forms, which travellers have to fill in before they return to the UK, will be addressed later in the spring.
He is also not expected to ease concerns that hospitals will still limit visits to patients, with Government sources saying that is a matter for individual hospital trusts.
Ministers have been encouraged by the continuing fall in infections, deaths and hospitalisations.
Covid-19 cases have fallen by a quarter week on week, to 34,377 positive tests in the most recent 24 hours.
Deaths are also down by 23 percent on last week to 128.
When he signposted the announcement on ending restrictions earlier this month, Mr Johnson made it contingent on the outbreak continued to recede.
The Freedom Day plans come despite warnings from Mr Johnson’s scientific advisers that Covid cases could soar if the self-isolation rules are ditched.
But ministers said new variants of the virus are expected to follow a similar pattern to Omicron in being more mild than early Covid-19 mutations.
Government sources stressed that although lockdowns were necessary to save lives, the restrictions had also taken ‘a significant toll’.
In future, the emphasis would be on people to show ‘personal responsibility’ by staying at home if they have Covid – just as they would if they had flu.
Mr Johnson yesterday admitted that ‘Covid will not suddenly disappear’, but added: ‘We need to learn to live with this virus and continue to protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms.
‘We’ve built up strong protections against this virus over the past two years through the vaccine rollouts, tests, new treatments, and the best scientific understanding of what this virus can do.
‘Thanks to our successful vaccination programme and the sheer magnitude of people who have come forward to be jabbed, we are now in a position to set out our plan for living with Covid this week.’
He is set to confirm that the legal duty introduced in 2020 requiring self-isolation for people who test positive will expire later this week.
In future, the emphasis would be on people to show ‘personal responsibility’ by staying at home if they have Covid – just as they would if they had flu. (Pictured: Commuters, some wearing masks, arrive at Waterloo train station in London)
Powers to order national lockdowns will also end, with sources saying it would instead be up to local authorities to manage outbreaks.
The PM is also expected to leave open the prospect that further Covid jabs could be given, saying he will be guided by expert vaccines body the JCVI.
Responding to the Prime Minister’s future blueprint for dealing with Covid, Labour said people should not be asked to pay for coronavirus tests.
Armed forces minister James Heappey suggested on Thursday that Mr Johnson was likely to announce an end to free lateral flow tests as he called on the public to ‘worry less about the need to have tested ourselves’.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: ‘Boris Johnson is declaring victory before the war is over, in an attempt to distract from the police knocking at his door.
‘Labour doesn’t want to see restrictions in place any longer than they need to be.
‘The Government should publish the evidence behind this decision, so the public can have faith that it is being made in the national interest.
‘Now is not the time to start charging for tests or weaken sick pay, when people are still being asked to behave responsibly.’
Meanwhile, No 10 sources stressed testing ‘surveillance systems and contingency measures’ would be retained for use if required.
Downing Street said pharmaceutical interventions will ‘continue to be our first line of defence’, with the vaccine programme remaining ‘open to anyone who has not yet come forward’.
With 85 per cent of the UK’s population double-vaccinated, and 38million booster jabs administered, No 10 said it had concluded ‘Government intervention in people’s lives can now finally end’.
But it appeared to keep the door open to state-funded infection sampling remaining in place, following reports that Covid studies could be withdrawn as part of the plan.
Officials said Monday’s ‘living with Covid’ plan will maintain ‘resilience against future variants with ongoing surveillance capabilities’.
It comes after senior statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter argued that the Office for National Statistics’ Covid-19 study should remain in place in some form.
The Cambridge University professor, who is a non-executive director for the ONS and chairman of the advisory board for the Covid Infection Survey, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the results had been vital for monitoring people’s behaviour.
‘It has been absolutely so important as we have gone along,’ he said on Saturday.
‘It has been running since April 2020, and so, as I said, I do have a bias here but it is not just me – I think lots of people are saying how important it is, particularly the statistical community.’