England woke up to freedom this morning after nearly two years of crippling on-off lockdowns as all emergency Covid laws introduced to tackle the pandemic ended at midnight.
Self-isolation rules for the infected are now officially over, masks are no longer necessary on public transport in London and NHS hospitals are finally being told to lift visiting restrictions.
Boris Johnson said England was exiting the ‘grimmest years in our peacetime’ when the PM unveiled his ‘Living With Covid’ strategy on Monday, with its high vaccination rates and life-saving new drugs allowing it become the freest country in Europe.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid branded ‘Freedom Day’ — how February 24, 2022 will go down in the history books — as an ‘important’ next step in a new phase of the pandemic.
But he urged people to remain ‘sensible’ in the next stage of the country’s battle with Covid, warning that the virus ‘is not done with us’ with new and challenging variants expected to emerge.
Since Mr Johnson told the nation to ‘stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ in a landmark Downing Street press conference on March 23, 2020, England has been through three blanket lockdowns, months of ‘whack-a-mole’-style local restrictions and repeated school closures.
Even when draconian stay-at-home orders were lifted, face masks, routine swabbing, working from home and social distancing became the new normal.
From today, however, anyone who receives a positive Covid test will no longer be obliged to quarantine at home for five days by law — although advice to avoid others for five days remains. Routine contact tracing has also been axed, as has the £500 self-isolation payments.
Changes to statutory sick pay and employment support allowance designed to help people through the pandemic will end on March 24, when Britain embarks on another vaccine roll-out to give 8million elderly adults and over-12s with weakened immune systems a fourth jab.
NHS trusts are also being told to relax their visiting policies after it emerged some hospitals were still limiting non-Covid patients to just one visitor per day, sometimes for only half an hour.
And then in the final step in the Government’s living with Covid strategy, free universal testing will end on April 1 and will instead be prioritised for the most vulnerable. High street pharmacies will sell rapid swabs for as little as £1.89.
Mr Javid told The Times today: ‘We must never lose sight of the fact the rules and regulations we introduced were an extraordinary response to an extraordinary challenge, they were never intended to be the new normal.’
Dozens of commuters disembark a train at London King’s Cross railway station at rush hour this morning, as England woke up to freedom
Boris Johnson hailed a new post-Covid era as he declared that self-isolation laws are being axed from tomorrow and free tests will go from April
Meanwhile, public transport users in London will no longer be required to wear face masks after Transport for London dropped its ruling saying they were compulsory – but some commuters were still choosing to wear them this morning
All coronavirus laws in England including the legal requirement for people who test positive to isolate are ending today. The lifting of remaining restrictions on normal life come after Boris Johnson (pictured today, addressing the nation about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) unveiled his ‘Living with Covid Plan’ on on Monday, in which he insisted that vaccines and new treatments can be relied on to keep the public safe
Isolation rules are not changing in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where people will still have to legally isolate for five full days after testing positive or face fines.
Face masks are being phased out in the devolved nations over the next month but announcements have not been made about what will happen to free testing.
Universal free testing will be massively scaled back in England from April 1 and will instead be focused on the most vulnerable, who will be eligible for free swabs if they are symptomatic.
Asymptomatic testing will continue for social care staff in elderly care homes, to protect residents who are most at-risk of severe symptoms.
The Scottish and Welsh first ministers have described Mr Johnson’s approach to testing and isolation in England as ‘reckless’.
But the Prime Minister has said that his plan will ‘finally give people back their freedom’ after ‘one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history’.
Meanwhile, new NHS England guidance is being drawn up to loosen visitor restriction policies brought in during the pandemic as the health service transitions to learning to live with Covid, The Telegraph reports.
The new guidance reportedly states: ‘The visiting guidance is being reviewed in light of the ‘living with Covid-19′ plans and we will be communicating the outcome of this review shortly so that visitors can attend hospitals and healthcare settings in a manner that continues to protect patients and staff.’
The new guidance is expected to tell trusts that they need to be more open with their visiting policies amid reports that around one fifth of trusts still have all routine visits suspended.
Some have been limiting non-Covid patients to just one visit for one hour per day for their entire hospital stay, the paper reports. In the most strict cases, trusts were limiting the visits to 30 minutes every second day.
Relatives have warned that not being able to see loved ones for weeks at a time has negatively affected patients and their recoveries.
The news about the ending of all legal restrictions was heralded by the Health Secretary, although he struck a note of caution.
Office for National Statistics (ONS) statisticians estimated there were 2.1million infections on any given day in England in the week up to February 19, down 14 per cent on the 2.4million per day the week before
The news about the ending of all legal restrictions was heralded by Health Secretary Sajid Javid (pictured last week during a visit to a new research facility at Porton Down), although he struck a note of caution
UK’s faltering Covid wave continues to fizzle as daily cases plunge 26% in a week, deaths drop 18% and hospital admissions fall to below 1,000 for first time this year
Britain’s Covid wave is continuing to fizzle out with daily cases, deaths and hospitalisations all trending downwards, official data shows.
There were another 39,656 infections recorded over the 24 hours to Wednesday, marking a fall of a quarter compared to last week, according to Government dashboard data.
Daily cases have consistently fallen for more than three weeks in a row now, and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) weekly infection survey is mirroring that trend.
There were also 164 Covid deaths registered today, down 17 per cent from last week.
Latest hospital figures show another 970 admissions were recorded on February 19, which was the first time they have dipped below 1,000 so far this year.
The last time there were three-digit daily Covid hospital admissions in the UK was in mid-December before the Omicron surge was felt in the NHS.
A significant share of Covid admissions and deaths are now not primarily caused by the virus — the effect of the milder but much more infectious variant.
The faltering drop in stats combined with the severed link between infection and severe disease has given ministers the confidence to start winding down the official dump of Covid statistics at weekends, with a view to scrapping the daily numbers completely by spring.
It comes as the ONS survey — seen as the most trustworthy surveillance study — estimated England’s cases fell for the second week in a row, dropping 13 per cent to the equivalent of one in 25 people being infected over the week to February 19.
The survey — based on 100,000 random swabs — is set to continue once free testing ends in April, and is seen as the ‘gold-standard’ for monitoring the virus by ministers.
Mr Javid told The Times: ‘This is an important day as we move from rules set by the Government to more personal responsibility.
‘And although we might be done with Covid, Covid is not done with us. It is here to stay so please continue to be sensible as we move forward on the road to recovery.’
Transport for London was the last bastion of masks on public transport in England but the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan has now dropped the requirement for coverings.
TFL announced coverings will stop being a condition of carriage following the ‘shift in the Government’s approach’ towards living with coronavirus. It added that ‘decreasing infection rates in London’ were also a factor in its decision.
Despite the unlocking, an Ipsos survey of 1,000 people aged 16-75 found that 46 per cent of those polled believe that the Government is relaxing coronavirus restrictions too quickly, while 39 per cent believe it is about the right time.
The survey found that 49 per cent of people do not support the end of legal self-isolation for those testing positive for Covid, while 33 per cent of those polled do support the end of the legal requirement.
Almost four in 10 Britons surveyed said it is likely they will go to the shops (37 per cent) even if they have tested positive for Covid, and the same proportion of workers feel they would go into work if they were positive.
The survey found that 24 per cent said it is likely they would travel on public transport if they had tested positive, while 20 per cent said they would visit elderly relatives.
More than half of those polled (52 per cent) said it is likely that they would go for a walk outside if they had tested positive for the virus.
Just 29 per cent of those surveyed support the decision to no longer provide free Covid test kits.
Keiran Pedley, at Ipsos, said: ‘While the public are divided on whether or not this is the right time for the Government to relax Covid restrictions, it’s clear that the decision to stop providing free Covid tests to anyone who requests them is not a popular one.
‘It is notable that British workers are split on whether they would go into work even after testing positive which may have implications for plans to get people back into offices.’
On Monday, England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty said people should still isolate if they have Covid-19 despite the legal requirement ending.
He said it is ‘standard public health advice’ as he warned that while rates are coming down it is ‘still a very common infection’.
Mr Johnson acknowledged there is likely to be another variant that will ’cause us trouble’, saying he did not want people to think ‘there’s some division between the gung ho politicians and the cautious, anxious scientists’.
He said: ‘The most important thing is that – and I hope this is the big take-out from this – the sun is shining but we’re keeping our umbrella.’
But the British Medical Association warned that the ‘living with Covid’ strategy ‘fails to protect those at highest risk of harm from Covid-19, and neglects some of the most vulnerable people in society’.
Groups representing vulnerable individuals also sounded the alarm over the end to isolation laws, with the Scope disability equality charity saying it would usher in a life ‘living with fear’.
Blood Cancer UK warned that the plan ‘will cause huge anxiety among immunocompromised people and leave many of them feeling abandoned’, while the MS Society said the scrapping of free universal testing is ‘not only reckless but dangerous’.
Britain’s Covid pandemic: The pivotal moments
23 March – In an historic televised address, Boris Johnson announces a nationwide lockdown coming into effect on 26 March. All non-essential shops are required to close and public gatherings of more than two people are banned. Police are given new powers to enforce lockdown with fine.
26 March – The first ‘Clap for Carers’ event takes place across the UK at 18.00, applauding the NHS for their work during the pandemic.
27 March – Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock both test positive for Covid-19 as the virus rips through Westminster. Chris Whitty also starts self-isolating after suffering from Covid symptoms.
5 April – The Prime Minister is admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London for ‘precautionary’ tests after his symptoms persisted for 10 days. Queen Elizabeth II makes a rare televised broadcast to the UK and the wider Commonwealth, thanking people for following the government’s new Covid rules and telling the nation: ‘If we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it’.
6 April – Boris Johnson moved to intensive care after his condition dramatically worsens. First Secretary of State Dominic Raab stands in as deputy.
16 April – 99-year-old war veteran Captain Tom Moore finishes walking 100 laps of his garden, eventually raising almost £33 million for NHS Charities Together. Dominic Raab announces a three-week extension of the nationwide lockdown.
29 April – The Daily Mail’s new charity, Mail Force, flies in vital PPE worth over £1million for frontline hospital staff in dire need of equipment.
23 May – Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser, is revealed to have travelled 260 miles from London to Durham to self-isolate during lockdown.
26 May – In an extraordinary press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden Dominic Cummings says he doesn’t regret his lockdown-breaking journey to Durham amid calls for him to resign.
15 June – All non-essential retail opens in the UK, and places of worship open for private worship. Face coverings become mandatory on public transport.
4 July – Pubs, restaurants, hairdressers reopen as lockdown measures continue to ease in the UK.
14 September – Social gatherings of more than six are banned as Covid cases begin to rise across the country.
22 September – In a televised address Boris Johnson warns the nation ‘the fight against Covid is by no means over’ as he unveiled new restrictions including a 10pm curfew for pubs and £200 fines for those flouting rules.
14 October – A new three-tiered system of lockdowns comes into effect in the UK, rating areas in the country medium, high or very high.
31 October – Boris Johnson announces a second national lockdown for England to prevent a ‘medical and moral disaster’, lasting from 5 November to 2 December.
9 November – The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine is reported to be 90 per cent successful in preventing COVID-19.
23 November – The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is revealed to be 70 per cent effective. Boris Johnson confirms the previous three-tier system of COVID regulations will return once lockdown finishes on 2 December.
3 December – Britain becomes the first country in the world to approve a Covid vaccine, with the Pfizer/BioNTech arriving the following week. But Boris Johnson warns the public should not get ‘carried away with over optimism’.
8 December – Margaret Keenan, 90, becomes the first person to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as the UK jab rollout begins.
14 December – Matt Hancock announces the discovery of a new variant of Covid that is spreading faster in some areas of the country.
19 December – Boris Johnson announces that London, the South East and East of England will go into new Tier 4 restrictions and Christmas bubbles will be scrapped in Tier 4 areas, effectively cancelling Christmas for millions of families.
4 January – The country is plunged into a third national lockdown from 5 January, shutting all non-essential retail and schools. Brian Pinker, 82, becomes the first person to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.
2 February – Captain Sir Tom Moore dies aged 100 after testing positive for COVID-19. A study, suggests that a single dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could lead to a ‘substantial’ fall in the spread of COVID, and is 76% effective in the 12 weeks before the second dose is given.
22 February – Boris Johnson reveals his roadmap out of the third national lockdown in England, with schools opening on 8 March and non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality opening from 12 April.
8 March – Step one of the unlocking sees schools allowed to reopen and people allowed to meet one other person outside once a day. The stay at home order remains in place.
29 March – The second part of step one allows people to leave their homes when they wish but they are advised to ‘stay local’. Up to two people can meet indoors and up to six outdoors, including in private gardens. Open air sports facilities can reopen.
12 April – Non-essential shops are reopened and restaurants and pubs are allowed to offer outdoor service as part of step two of the unlocking. Many other outdoor venues also reopen, including zoos and theme parks. Self-contained holidays are permitted.
17 May – Step three of unlocking takes place. Social mixing rules are expanded to allow the rule of six indoors and up to 30 people to meet outdoors. Indoor venues can reopen, including cinemas, restaurants and pubs. Outdoor stadiums can seat up to 10,000 spectators.
14 June – Boris delays ‘freedom day’ by more than a month after a surge in cases of the Delta variant. The new date for the final unlocking is scheduled for July 19, which the PM says will buy the country time to vaccinate more people.
19 July – The final part of the roadmap out of lockdown sees most legal limits on social contact lifted, including the rule of six. Nightclubs are also able to open their doors for the first time in months. People are asked to ‘gradually’ to return to their desks as the WFH advice is softened. The ‘one metre plus’ rule on social distancing is lifted except in specific circumstances such as at the border and legal requirements to wear face coverings are ditched.
4 November – UK becomes first country to approve an antiviral that can slash the risk of severe Covid. Nearly half a million doses of molnupiravir, a pill that can be taken twice daily at home, are due for delivery from mid-November.
16 November – NHS begins Covid booster vaccine rollout campaign after approval from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Data shows protection from two doses starts to wane after six months. Elderly care-home residents are offered jabs first, moving down through the age cohorts to over-50s. Frontline health and social care workers and younger adults with underlying health conditions are also included in the rollout.
23 November: UK scientist sounds the alarm about ‘horrific’ new variant with 32 mutations on its spike protein – which is later named Omicron. The strain causes an explosion of cases in South Africa where it was first detected.
27 November – The first two cases of Omicron are announced in the UK as ministers impose a ban on swathes of southern Africa in an attempt to limit the importation of cases.
30 November – The booster vaccine rollout is expanded to all adults aged 18 and over to tackle Omicron.
8 December – Boris moves England to ‘plan B’ restrictions for winter as the Omicron variant is projected to send case rates to astronomical levels. Face masks become mandatory in most public indoor venues and NHS Covid Passes must be used to gain access to specific settings. People are asked to work from home when possible.
January 27 – The Omicron wave begins to settle a tidal wave of infections sent daily cases to more than 200,000 per day. Hospital pressure does not reach levels projected by expert advisers, with the booster rollout credited. England moves to ‘plan A’ which sees face coverings and NHS Covid passes scrapped.
February 24 – The Government’s ‘Living with Covid’ is enacted, with all remaining restrictions ending. People who catch the virus no longer have to self-isolate, although they will still be advised to avoid others for five days.
MATT HANCOCK: Freedom Day today has been hard won. Now we must resist the dangerous slide against liberty that Covid has left in its wake… Why should the Government express a view on where people work?
Nearly two years ago I asked Parliament to approve a set of laws more draconian than any in peacetime history.
Mostly when you pass a law you want it to be permanent. Not this time I didn’t. And I am delighted that today those laws relating to Covid restrictions are finally being abolished, and our freedoms restored.
Hearing the Prime Minister in the House of Commons this week made me emotional. We should all be proud that Britain is the first major nation to come out of such restrictions.
It is testament not only to the huge project to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, but also to the enthusiasm with which people came forward to have them.
From the start of the pandemic, I believed vaccines would be the only way out — we had to suppress the virus until a vaccine could make us safe.
We started work on getting a jab in January 2020. I distinctly recall a meeting with Jonathan Van-Tam, then deputy chief medical officer, and the brilliant team of scientific advisers who told me that developing a vaccine usually takes five to ten years — but given the circumstances, they said, we could aim for 18 months.
I am delighted that today laws relating to Covid restrictions are finally being abolished, and our freedoms restored, says Matt Hancock (pictured in June 2021)
Because I believe in the power of science and human ingenuity, I set them the task of producing a vaccine by the next Christmas — in less than 12 months.
This was ambitious, but I knew that if we stripped back the bureaucracy, we could achieve it.
The team delivered magnificently, meaning we were the first country in the world to make use of a vaccine — and in every part of the UK.
I always said that once the vaccine was deployed we must ‘cry freedom’ and learn to live with Covid as we do flu. Due to the fastest vaccine rollout ever, today is that Freedom Day.
Covid is no longer a pandemic in the UK, it is instead endemic. It will always be around — we cannot see off a disease that spreads as easily as this does.
Some countries have tried, like China, but the result is that they are struggling with a semi-permanent state of lockdown.
In the UK, by contrast, we have been able to pass this point and get back to our cherished way of life.
Which is why it is time to end all of these intrusive Covid regulations.
In response to the Omicron variant of the virus, when some said we should lock down again, the Prime Minister appealed to everyone’s sense of personal responsibility, trusting people to take action to help stop the spread of the virus and protect others.
The point is that where we can solve problems by relying on science and personal responsibility, not diktat, we should. It is the British way.
Now, why should the Government express a view on where people work, whether it is home or the office? Pictured: Commuters arrive at Waterloo station on February 2
Now we should apply that lesson to all remaining Covid regulations.
Airlines have records of who is flying and their addresses, so why do we need another piece of bureaucracy — the passenger locator form which travellers must fill in before entering the UK? If the problem is inflexible EU rules banning the modern use of data, we should tackle this.
And now the pandemic is over, why should the Government express a view on where people work, whether it is home or the office? It is for people, and their employers, to decide. I say ‘cry freedom’ on work-from-home, too.
I am a freedom-loving liberal Conservative. My parents had a small family business and I went into politics partly out of frustration at the red tape that held back their firm.
It is in the Conservative Party’s DNA to allow businesses and entrepreneurs to flourish. The way we simplified rules to accelerate the vaccine shows the way.
I have a positive view of human nature and believe the more restrictions the state imposes on people, the more they crowd out the talent we need to unleash growth.
Decisions in the pandemic were a wrestle for me between my burning belief in freedom on the one hand, and a data-driven practical necessity to reduce transmission of the virus on the other.
In effect, the restrictions we had to impose were a necessary evil. But now the vaccine has replaced the need for regulation, we can get on with our lives.
Some will never agree with the decisions about restrictions that we made in the pandemic. I understand the differences in opinion.
What I would say is that in the face of an unprecedented global health crisis, we had a duty to protect lives and get us out of the pandemic as quickly as possible.
Without action, hundreds of thousands more would have died, and the NHS would have been overwhelmed.
My fervent belief is that people should be free to act as they choose, unless they harm others.
But in a pandemic, people can be harmed unwittingly. And as there was so little information about this virus, and the world had no cure for it, the only way we could protect lives was to ensure individuals didn’t infect others. We did what we had to do.
I also understand why some people are now cautious about moving too quickly. Covid is a horrible disease. But the question for anyone opposing the lifting of restrictions is: if not now, when?
In Parliament this week, we had the contorted sight of the Labour Party clinging onto these restrictions, without any answer to that question.
We have seen the Opposition benches calling on the Government to keep mandated masks, keep passenger locator forms, keep working-from-home measures and keep self-isolation requirements.
Covid is no longer a pandemic in the UK. Some countries have tried, like China, but they are in a semi-permanent state of lockdown. Pictured: Beijing airport after the 2020 Winter Olympics
Even the most ardent supporter of lockdowns can see such measures must be temporary. We cannot wait until there is no Covid at all, as then we’d be waiting for ever.
Those on the Left always have an instinct for intrusion and bureaucracy. To give in to their demands to keep restrictions would be a slippery slope.
After all, it is the instinct of bureaucracies through the ages to accumulate power rather than give it away.
The liberal instinct of trusting the people is always harder when the pressure is for caution and regulations. Yet it is vital that freedom wins the day.
Around the world, a worrying consequence of Covid is more authoritarian interventions. We must resist this dangerous slide.
Just as every generation before us has had to do, we once again need to win the argument for liberty.
Some ask why this is so important, why government can’t continue to make decisions for us.
The answer is simple: it is because people know what is best for them, not the state. It is the role of government to enable people to fly as high as their aspirations take them.
We must now make the most of our chances in this post-Brexit, post-pandemic world. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle unnecessary red tape, and shape our country as an open, liberal democracy.
We must not forget that free enterprise and free trade are the drivers of prosperity. Now is the moment to make the most of them.
So, let’s seize this moment and embrace Britain’s natural love of freedom to create a dynamic country that will prosper as no other in the decades ahead.
Matt Hancock was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, 2018-2021