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Living with Covid: What’s happening with free tests and self-isolation?

Everything you need to know about Boris Johnson’s blueprint for living with the virus.

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(PA)

(PA)

(PA)

The Prime Minister has delivered his plan for living with coronavirus – featuring an end to mandatory self-isolation and universal free tests for the general public in England.

The confirmation of the next step back to normality was presented to MPs on Monday afternoon following a last-minute delay to ministers signing off on the proposals.

So, what happens now? Here’s everything you need to know…

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(Jacob King/PA)

(Jacob King/PA)

PA

(Jacob King/PA)

– Will I have to self-isolate if I test positive for Covid?

No, as of Thursday. Subject to Parliamentary approval, the Government is axing the legal obligation to isolate after a positive test from February 24.

However, the official public health advice will remain that people testing positive for the virus should stay at home for five days. This includes both adults and children.

Crucially, this guidance will not be enforced by law.

The Government will also no longer ask vaccinated contacts, and those under 18, to test for seven days, and will remove the legal requirement for contacts who are not vaccinated to self-isolate.

Meanwhile, there will be an end to routine contact tracing.

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Free universal coronavirus testing will end for the general public in England from April 1 (Danny Lawson/PA)

Free universal coronavirus testing will end for the general public in England from April 1 (Danny Lawson/PA)

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Free universal coronavirus testing will end for the general public in England from April 1 (Danny Lawson/PA)

– Can I still get free Covid tests?

For now, yes. But this is changing at the beginning of April.

Mr Johnson hinted on Sunday that provision for free tests could not continue at their current rate due to the cost of £2 billion a month.

We now know that free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing will end for the general public in England from April 1.

Remaining symptomatic testing will be focused on the most vulnerable, with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) set to determine the details.

This is expected to include people over the age of 80 and the immunosuppressed.

A degree of asymptomatic testing will also be maintained in the most risky settings, such as in social care.

Mr Johnson’s administration has been warned by critics that the public could be left “flying blind” on Covid if left without free testing provision.

The UKHSA will maintain an appropriate level of lab infrastructure to be able to dial back up PCR testing, should this be needed.

It will also maintain a stockpile of LFTs for a surge in usage if required.

– So how much will I have to pay for tests?

The Government expects a market for lateral flow devices to develop once boxes are no longer available free on the NHS, with individual tests expected to cost a few pounds.

To prevent people stockpiling them before April 1, individuals will only be able to order a box of tests on the NHS every three days instead of every 24 hours.

– What is happening with support payments?

From February 24, the Government is planning to end self-isolation payments and some of the practical support that accompanies them.

Currently, people in England on low incomes can claim £500 in financial support if they are forced to isolate after testing positive for Covid or coming into contact with someone who has. This provision will come to an end on Thursday.

Next month, from March 24, the Government is intending to reverse changes to statutory sick pay (SSP) and employment support allowance designed to help people through the Covid crisis.

– Will I be asked to get another vaccine?

People aged 75 and over, the immunosuppressed and those living in care homes will be offered another Covid-19 booster vaccine this spring.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Monday that the top-up jab will help those at the highest risk of serious illness maintain a high level of protection against the virus.

The NHS in England will offer people the jab from around six months after their last dose, with further details due to be set out shortly.

In interim guidance published for planning purposes, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said a further dose for older people and those at risk is likely to be needed this autumn.

This is because, although vaccines offer strong protection, their effectiveness does wane over time and Covid surges are expected in winter.

The autumn jab campaign is expected to cover a wider group of people than in the spring and could include any new Covid vaccines that are available.

– What about the devolved nations?

Mr Johnson’s plan applies only to England, but that does not mean it will not affect Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in any way.

One major development is the end to free universal testing in April, which will prove controversial with devolved leaders.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said prior to Monday’s announcement that it would be “premature and reckless” to wind back the programme, adding: “Testing has played a pivotal role in breaking chains of transmission and as a surveillance tool helping us detect and respond to emerging variants. It’s essential that this continues.”

And Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said “significant dismantling” of the testing regime would be “inexcusable negligence given ongoing risks”.

However it became clear on Monday that the devolved nations will need to cover the cost of universal free testing beyond April 1 themselves, should they think it necessary.

Ms Sturgeon is expected to set out her new strategic framework for dealing with coronavirus on Tuesday.

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to set out her new strategic framework for dealing with coronavirus on Tuesday (Peter Summers/PA)

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to set out her new strategic framework for dealing with coronavirus on Tuesday (Peter Summers/PA)

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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is expected to set out her new strategic framework for dealing with coronavirus on Tuesday (Peter Summers/PA)

She has said it would be “unacceptable” for public health decisions of the devolved administrations to be impacted by funding choices taken by the UK Government.

There are currently no formal plans to end the self-isolation rules in Wales, which mean people with Covid have to remain at home for five full days and return a negative lateral flow test on days five and six.

However Welsh economy minister Vaughan Gething has said it is possible all Covid restrictions in the country could be lifted by the end of March.

Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann said on Monday that his department would “carefully consider” the “living with Covid” plan unveiled in England.

But he said no decisions had been taken on any changes to the country’s test and trace programme.

People in Northern Ireland are still advised to self-isolate if they test positive for the virus, or they have been in contact with a positive case and are not vaccinated – although this is not legally-enforced.

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Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann (Peter Morrison/PA)

Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann (Peter Morrison/PA)

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Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann (Peter Morrison/PA)

– Does “living with Covid” mean it’s all over?

Sadly not. Mr Johnson said at a Downing Street press conference on Monday evening that “we should be clear that the pandemic is not over”, warning “there may be significant resurgences”.

Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said Covid will continue to evolve over the next couple of years, and there is no guarantee that future variants will be less severe.

He said it is essential to maintain a virus surveillance system, the capacity to “ramp up” measures again quickly and to protect the vulnerable.

“This pandemic is not over. The virus is continuing to evolve. It will continue to do so quite fast probably for the next couple of years,” he said.

“There is no guarantee that the next variant is as reduced severity as Omicron.

“The change in severity is a random by-product. We expect there to be further variants and they could be more severe.”

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