Ministers brace to live with Covid amid push for five-day isolation

‘We’re moving to a situation where we can live with Covid’: Ministers heap pressure on scientists over cutting isolation to FIVE days amid claims Boris will outline a new plan to transition out of crisis by March

  • 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 

Ministers today insisted Britain is on a path to ‘living with Covid’ amid rising pressure on scientists to sign off cutting the isolation period to five days.

The government and NHS leaders appear increasingly confident that the Omicron wave will not overwhelm services – despite warnings they are still under huge strain.

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’. 

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’.  

Boris Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March.

He is expected to scale back the testing regime with free lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations and a reduction in isolation periods, according to The i.

Mr Gove stressed that the tests would be free for ‘as long as we need’.

Meanwhile, there is a mounting clamour for the self-isolation period to be trimmed again to five days in England.   

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi suggested yesterday that the reduction would ease staffing issues, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak is believed to be in favour of the move.

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’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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