All Covid regulations, including the requirement to isolate after testing positive, are due to be abolished in England in two weeks, Boris Johnson has announced.
The prime minister moved the plan forward by a month, saying the change “shows that the hard work of the British people is paying off”. It sets England on a different course from many countries that continue to enforce quarantine with penalties and fines even while relaxing other rules.
Some scientists warned that Johnson risked sending a signal that the pandemic is “all over”, while unions said he was “going too far, way too soon” in aiming to end all domestic rules in England from Thursday 24 February. Charities said it could leave clinically vulnerable people exposed.
Downing Street will set out guidance but confirmed people would be advised to avoid going to work if they tested positive for Covid – though without the current legal obligation and possible fines. Currently, those who have the virus can leave their homes after negative rapid test results on days five and six of the isolation period.
In a sign that the prime minister still faces pressure from inside his party, lockdown-sceptic Conservatives demanded he go further, calling for a guarantee of no future restrictions and changes to public health laws to generate “competitive” scientific advice in future pandemics.
Downing Street had signalled last month that it planned to drop all remaining legal constraints when the relevant regulations expire on 24 March. But in a surprise announcement to the Commons on Wednesday, Johnson hastened the timetable.
The plan was to “present our strategy for living with Covid” on 21 February, Johnson said, bringing cheers from many of his MPs just before prime minister’s questions.
If “the current encouraging trends in the data continue”, Johnson added, he would confirm the end of all domestic regulations, with the change formally beginning later that week. Some travel restrictions, such as passenger locator forms and quarantine for unvaccinated people who test positive after arrival, are likely to continue.
“Obviously in the same way [as for] someone with flu, we wouldn’t recommend they go to work, we would never recommend anyone goes to work when they have an infectious disease,” Johnson’s spokesperson said. Free Covid testing will continue for now, though it is expected to be scrapped at some point.
It remains unclear if the £500 grant available for people on low incomes who have to self-isolate will still be available, with unions calling for proper sick pay and a guarantee that staff who test positive will not be forced to work. The rule change should not be “a green light for bosses to cut corners”, said Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary.
Christina McAnea, the head of Unison, which represents many education and health staff, said the move appeared premature given “rife” infections in schools and UK-wide positive tests still close to 70,000 a day.
“Everybody wants to get back to normal but Covid risks haven’t disappeared,” she said. “This is going too far, way too soon.”
Teaching unions also expressed concern, with the Association of School and College Leaders saying the announcement had come “without any prior communication or discussion”.
Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at St Andrews University and a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, said there was a risk Johnson’s move could affect ongoing Covid efforts such as the booster vaccination programme.
“Taking away the obligation to self-isolate is the final and most powerful way of saying ‘it’s all over’ and that infections don’t matter,” he said. “We know that perceptions of risk are critical to adherence and that people won’t do things if they believe there is no need to do them, however much they are urged.”
Making self-isolation a matter of choice would “inevitably” mean this would happen much more often among people who could either work from home or afford to take time off, Reicher added.
Health chiefs said that while the end of compulsory self-isolation would ease NHS staff shortages, it could bring other pressures. “Covid-19 has not gone away,” said Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England, noting that infection levels remained high and there remained risks from variants and long Covid.
There was particular worry among groups representing clinically vulnerable or immunosuppressed groups, with the disability charity Scope saying some disabled people “have felt increasingly like they have been left to fend for themselves”.
Gemma Peters, the chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, said the end of isolation rules would create “anxiety and anger” for those with suppressed immune systems. “Ministers need to ensure the public know that there are 500,000 people in the UK for whom the vaccine is less effective and therefore are not as ‘free’ as everyone else.”
Johnson’s announcement was clearly intended to buoy his MPs a day before the Commons breaks for recess, as he faces new revelations about a Downing Street social event in December 2020, now being reviewed by police.
At prime minister’s questions, Johnson repeatedly talked up his decision to move rapidly away from tight Covid rules in England, both last summer and after indications this winter that the Omicron variant was less severe, saying he had got “the big calls” right.
He nonetheless still faces pressure from his MPs. Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers, said he welcomed the move but called for changes to public health laws to bring “better modelling [and] competitive, multidisciplinary expert advice”, to make future lockdowns less likely.
David Frost, Johnson’s recently departed Brexit minister and an increasingly influential voice on the right of the Conservatives, called for Johnson to “also make clear we will not go down the road of coercive lockdowns ever again”.
• This article was amended on 16 February 2022. At the time of publication it had already been announced earlier that, from 11 February, travellers entering England who were not fully vaccinated would not need to quarantine on arrival; only if they tested positive after arrival. This has been clarified.