Operation Rampdown: Tories to dismantle key Covid measures next year

Operation Rampdown: The codename revealed in leaked Government papers of an official plan to dismantle key Covid measures including self-isolation, mass testing and Test and Trace by early next year

  • Britain’s Covid response set to be dramatically scaled back early next year 
  • It’s part of a secret Whitehall pandemic ‘exit strategy’ codenamed Rampdown
  • The 160-page plan is in Government documents leaked to The Mail on Sunday
  • ‘Britain will have to learn to live with Covid as an ‘endemic’ illness for many years’
  • Free Covid testing to be scrapped for everyone under ‘Rampdown’ plans
  • No more self-isolation for those testing positive when laws expire in March 

Britain’s response to Covid is set to be dramatically scaled back early next year as part of a pandemic ‘exit strategy’ codenamed Rampdown.

The secret Whitehall plan is detailed in official Government documents leaked to The Mail on Sunday. They describe how much of the Government’s £37 billion emergency programme for dealing with the virus will be dismantled and the country prepared for living with Covid ‘for years to come’.

The extraordinary 160-page dossier includes a string of documents marked ‘official sensitive’ drawn up by the senior Government officials tasked with winding down Britain’s battle against the pandemic.

Britain’s Covid response set to be dramatically scaled back early next year. It’s part of a secret Whitehall pandemic ‘exit strategy’ codenamed Rampdown

The file reveals how the Government is set to:

  • Axe the legal requirement for those who catch the virus to self-isolate for ten days;
  • End free Covid tests and instead allow private companies to charge for lateral flow and PCR tests;
  • Shut down the national ‘Test and Trace’ system, which identifies those who may have been exposed to the virus;
  • Focus the fight against Covid on tackling local outbreaks and protecting ‘highest risk settings’, such as care homes;
  • Scrap £500 payments for those on low incomes who must quarantine.

In the documents, experts say Covid will remain at ‘endemic’ levels for years and that mutant strains of the virus will also ‘remain a very real risk’. But, crucially, the Government’s central planning assumption – described as the ‘leaving soon’ scenario – predicts there will be ‘no winter resurgence’ of the virus.

The revelations come as the number of new Covid cases plunged by more than a quarter in just over three weeks – from 52,009 a day to 38,351 – and more than 12 million people have had their booster vaccines.

The leaked Rampdown plans will be hailed by business owners and families exhausted by Britain’s two-year battle against the virus.

Professor Robert Dingwall of Nottingham Trent University, one of the UK’s leading sociologists and a former Government adviser, said: ‘I very much welcome the fact that people are planning for the end of the emergency and the restoration of everyday life. Treating Covid like any other respiratory infection should encourage people to dial down the fear and anxiety that have bedevilled the country for the past couple of years.’

But one Whitehall source has told The Mail on Sunday that some systems for monitoring the spread of the disease have already been shut down, sparking alarm among top Government scientists.

Crucially, the documents reveal that Ministers are set to abandon attempts to stop Covid-19 spreading ‘at all costs’

Another source also said large numbers of health experts who have led the fight against the virus for 18 months are ‘just walking away’ from the Government, resulting in a huge ‘loss of knowledge’.

‘It’s totally over, in the minds of Ministers,’ the source said. ‘But what happens if a new variant arrives and they have just shut down the whole national infrastructure? Are we retaining enough knowledge from the £37 billion investment over the past two years? I really don’t think we are.’

The Rampdown strategy is being hammered out as part of a six-week review of the Government’s ‘test, trace and isolate regime’ by officials at the UK Health Security Agency, a new body headed by former Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries.

The documents reveal that the officials are examining ‘what activities can we start ramping down before April?’ and what the ‘end state’ of Britain’s response to Covid should be after April.

Their conclusions are due to be finalised by Dr Harries and other key officials this weekend before being submitted to Health Secretary Sajid Javid. It is likely the Government will unveil the plan by the end of the year, unless there is a resurgence of cases caused by an unmanageable new strain of the virus.

Crucially, the documents reveal that Ministers are set to abandon attempts to stop Covid-19 spreading ‘at all costs’.

Instead, health officials will judge future policies against the same kind of cost-benefit analysis used to decide whether the NHS can afford expensive new drugs.

‘We will no longer be prioritising the previous objectives of breaking chains of transmission at all costs,’ one document stated.

Another document, discussed earlier this month, declared the Government will ‘end national trace and self-isolation policies’ and ‘move from whole population approaches to targeting the vulnerable’.

Insiders say the Rampdown strategy was partly being driven by the need to rein in the vast sums being spent on the pandemic.

The dossier reveals that the Government is drawing up plans to scrap the hugely costly free tests. Instead, testing will be prioritised for the most ‘vulnerable’, including those in care homes and hospitals, and used to contain local outbreaks

The controversial Test and Trace service was set up in May 2020 with a whopping £22 billion budget. It received a further £15 billion this year but its funding is expected to be dramatically cut next year.

‘Essentially they have to run everything down by the end of March because then the funding has gone,’ a source said. Meanwhile, a second major review, codenamed Rising Tide, is drawing up plans for how to respond to any new mutant strain of the virus arriving in the UK.

Ministers will be presented with a list of ‘core functions’ that will be needed to respond to any future devastating outbreak.

A Government spokesman said last night: ‘We have published the autumn and winter plan for managing the response to coronavirus, which remains a serious risk.

‘We keep our approach under review, and no decisions have been taken about next year.’

Britain will have to learn to live with Covid as an ‘endemic’ illness for many years, say the experts 

BY ISABEL OAKESHOTT 

Britain will have to learn to live with Covid as an ‘endemic’ illness for many years, according to the documents. 

The virus is expected to remain widespread within the population, with ‘seasonal surges’ in the winter like flu and other respiratory diseases. 

But thanks to vaccine booster jabs, Covid is forecast to enter what Government health experts are calling a ‘steady state’, with hospital admissions not expected to exceed recent levels of about 750 patients per day. 

‘Given the extent of transmission throughout the world, we now have to consider how society might concurrently suppress and live with the virus and reach an endemic state for years to come,’ one document, outlining the autumn strategy for the NHS Test and Trace service, states. 

The documents describe in detail for the first time the four different planning scenarios that have underpinned Boris Johnson’s response to the third wave of the virus. They include an optimistic scenario, named ‘quick farewell’, in which Covid cases would have peaked in July at 30,000 per day, and a ‘reasonable worst case’ scenario, named ‘long goodbye’, which forecast a summer peak of 85,000 cases per day. 

The central planning assumption is known as ‘leaving soon’ and would have involved a peak in July of 65,000 cases a day, with ‘modest levels’ by October. In fact, all of the scenarios were wrong. 

Daily UK cases in the third wave peaked in July at 54,674 but then remained high for three months, hitting 52,009 on October 21. Since then the numbers fell steadily, before moving slightly upwards in recent days. 

Daily UK cases in the third wave peaked in July at 54,674 but then remained high for three months, hitting 52,009 on October 21. Since then the numbers fell steadily, before moving slightly upwards in recent days

The central planning assumption is known as ‘leaving soon’ and would have involved a peak in July of 65,000 cases a day, with ‘modest levels’ by October. In fact, all of the scenarios were wrong

Mr Johnson last week warned that ‘storm clouds’ are gathering over Europe and said cases could rise in the UK

Government officials also privately believe that a World Health Organisation target of having 70 per cent of the world vaccinated is ‘unlikely to happen’. Nearly 80 countries, half of them in Africa, are set to miss a separate target of vaccinating 40 per cent of their population by the end of this year

Ominously, the Government documents warn that ‘an extreme event could emerge at any time’. This could include the spread of a vaccine-busting new strain or ‘severe supply chain issues’ with booster jabs. 

‘In any of our scenarios there is the potential for an unforeseen event or combination of events occurring to derail our planning and leave us in a worst case scenario with no end in sight,’ one document warns. 

New ‘variants of concern’, like the Delta strain which arrived earlier this year and quickly swept the country, remain a ‘very real risk’, it is claimed, especially if many people have Covid. 

Mr Johnson last week warned that ‘storm clouds’ are gathering over Europe and said cases could rise in the UK. 

Separate scenarios reported in the i newspaper yesterday show that the Government does not expect the pandemic to be declared over for at least another year.

Government officials also privately believe that a World Health Organisation target of having 70 per cent of the world vaccinated is ‘unlikely to happen’. 

Nearly 80 countries, half of them in Africa, are set to miss a separate target of vaccinating 40 per cent of their population by the end of this year.

Free Covid testing to be scrapped for everyone under ‘Rampdown’ plans 

BY MARK HOOKHAM 

Universal free Covid testing is set to be scrapped under the Government’s Rampdown plans.

Currently, anyone can request the delivery of free lateral flow tests to their homes, while those with symptoms are told to take free PCR tests, which are analysed in laboratories.

But the dossier reveals that the Government is drawing up plans to scrap the hugely costly free tests. Instead, testing will be prioritised for the most ‘vulnerable’, including those in care homes and hospitals, and used to contain local outbreaks.

One document, written in September, shows how officials warned that the move could result in a stampede of families ‘stockpiling’ lateral flow tests. ‘There is a risk that a public announcement on the end of free testing provision could lead to stockpiling of tests or incentivise people to access free testing through symptomatic routes.

‘Any decision to charge for tests is likely to discourage the most vulnerable, including the poorest, from testing.’

The document also reveals that officials are preparing to kick-start a ‘private testing market’ in which companies will charge people for tests. About 500 firms offering 150 different testing products are already undergoing the accreditation process, the document states.

‘We have put in place a foundation for a regulated private market for both PCR and LFDs [lateral flow devices]… To mobilise a private market, we would need to signal publicly and directly a firm end date for universal free testing.’

Handing the whole lucrative testing regime over to private firms is likely to prove controversial. Currently, people have to pay for their own PCR tests for travel from the open market, which created a ‘Wild West’ of misleading advertising and inflated pricing.

Mass testing had been a critical part of Britain’s fight against the virus, but a damning report by MPs last month found that despite an ‘eye-watering’ £37 billion budget over two years, NHS Test and Trace has failed in its main objective of helping stop the virus spreading.

More than 691 million free lateral flow tests have been distributed in the past year but only 96 million of these – 14 per cent – have been used to register a test result with the NHS, the report by the Public Accounts Committee found.

France ended free tests last month and the six million adults there who are not vaccinated now have to pay between £18 and £37 per test.

Free tests were axed in Germany on October 11 and now cost £16. One option being considered in England is for the Government to initially charge people for tests, as early as January, before handing over to private firms.

Officials are also considering sweeping away regular testing in schools in the New Year as vaccination rates among pupils rise. Currently all secondary school and college students should take lateral flow tests at home twice a week.

Ministers have ruled that regular mass testing will last until at least the Christmas holidays but officials are considering whether to then ditch them in favour of targeted testing to manage local outbreaks.

No more self-isolation for those who test positive for Covid when legal powers expire in March 

BY MARK HOOKHAM  

Strict rules that force those who test positive for Covid to self-isolate are set to be scrapped.

Last September, MPs extended laws that force those who catch the virus – as well as unvaccinated people who may have been exposed to it – to self-isolate for ten days.

But Government officials now assume that mandatory self-isolation will be ditched in March when the legal powers expire.

‘Working assumption [is] that legal duties will cease after March,’ a document written last month states.

A scheme that pays out £500 to those on low incomes who are self-isolating is expected to be axed at the same time to save cash. The Test and Trace Support Payment has paid out £167.9 million to 335,000 low-income workers during the pandemic.

Officials are also drawing up plans to slash the costs of the NHS’s contact-tracing system, which attempts to find those who might have been exposed to coronavirus.

The Treasury handed the NHS a further £94 million to bankroll its tracing service until the end of this month, but officials are now poring over ‘potential cost savings, including reducing staff numbers’.

Currently, those who self-isolate are called at home by NHS Test and Trace staff, who check they are complying with the rules. Officials, however, are preparing to recommend to Ministers that these calls be axed.

‘We are undertaking a review of the future approach to tracing to improve cost efficiency,’ one of the documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday states.

Unvaccinated travellers who arrive in the UK from abroad also have to self-isolate for ten days and are called every day. Those calls may also be ditched, it is suggested.

In the longer term, the UK Health Security Agency is planning to end the entire nationwide ‘trace’ regime as part of its ‘rampdown’ strategy as the country comes to live with Covid.

Instead, the responsibility could be handed over to local authorities, the documents suggest.

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