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Government announces end of COVID self-isolation and free tests

The government has announced the end of COVID self-isolation rules and access to free tests for the public.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new “living with COVID” plan in the Commons today (February 21), saying there was “scientific evidence” for ending restrictions.

Residents of England will no longer be legally required to self-isolate after testing positive for the virus after this Thursday (February 24), Johnson has announced, while £500 quarantine support payments will also end on the same date.

Free testing is also set to be scrapped in England, although the public will still be able to access unpaid tests until April 1. The Prime Minister said testing had become “much less valuable” as a tool for helping stop the spread of the virus. Earlier today it was revealed that the free scheme had cost £2billion in January 2022 alone.

COVID-19 home testing kit. CREDIT: Rosemary Roberts / Alamy Stock Photo

No price is being set by the government for a box of lateral flow tests, instead leaving it up to the market to decide on a cost.

Free tests will still be available to some of the most vulnerable groups if they are suffering from COVID symptoms. It has yet to be confirmed which groups these will be exactly, but is thought to include the over-80s and immuno-suppressed people.

NHS staff and patients, and care workers, will only receive free tests if they develop symptoms or if there’s an outbreak that requires asymptomatic testing to be carried out.

“We will continue to provide free symptomatic tests to the oldest age groups and those most vulnerable to Covid, and in line with the practice in many other countries, we’re working with retailers to ensure that everyone who wants to can buy a test, Johnson said.

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will also be affected in relation to those who contract coronavirus. Currently, SSP can be accessed from day one of testing positive but will realign with other illnesses from March 24 when it will only be available from the fourth day of sickness.

April 1 will see the end of the recommendation for showing a COVID status certification to gain entry to businesses and venues. However, the NHS app “will continue to allow people to indicate their vaccination status for international travel”.

Liverpool - live music pilot
The crowd at Liverpool’s COVID-19 pilot clubbing event. CREDIT: Getty Images

The Welsh and Scottish governments responded to reports of Johnson’s “living with COVID” plan in the hours before it was announced, calling it “premature and reckless”.

“Testing has played a pivotal role in breaking chains of transmission and as a surveillance tool helping us detect and respond to emerging variants,” tweeted the Welsh First Minister.

“It’s essential that this continues. Any decision to effectively turn off the tap on our National Testing Programme, with no future plans in place to reactivate it, would put people at risk. In Wales, we’ll continue to make decisions to protect the health of people based on the scientific evidence available to us,” Mark Drakeford wrote.

Figures from the music industry have responded to the government’s announcement of ending COVID restrictions. They welcomed the news but called for support of the live music and nightlife sectors to continue.

“The end of COVID-19 restrictions represents a huge, welcome relief to the live music sector, which lost billions in revenue throughout the pandemic,” Greg Parmley, CEO of LIVE said in a statement. “But with spiraling costs and thousands of companies struggling with pandemic debt, it’s crucial that government does not abandon and set the sector adrift, just as it starts to tread water again.”

He added that the trade body for the UK’s live music industry is calling for a reverse to a planned hike in VAT rates as well as the end of business rates relief.

Parmley said the reversals were necessary to “avoid further business closures and job losses within our sector”.

Paul Reed, CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF), said: “While we welcome legal restrictions around COVID coming to an end and the prospect of a full capacity festival season, the effects of the pandemic are still being felt by the independent festival sector and the need for Government action remains. With festival organizers facing crippling cost increases of up to 30 per cent across operations and infrastructure, this is not back to business as usual for festivals, and it is not a case of ‘job done’ for Ministers.

“AIF reiterates its call for ongoing support from the government in the form of continued VAT relief on festival tickets to maintain the current reduced 12.5 per cent rate on tickets beyond the end of March, and to also explore some form of a government-backed loan scheme for suppliers to alleviate some of these pressures and encourage investment in the festival supply chain.”

A punter gets the all clear. Credit: Ben Bentley for NME

The CEO of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) Michael Kill also welcomed the news but said the government still needed to play a role in supporting the sector, beginning with the Chancellor’s budget, which will be announced in March.

“The extension of VAT and business rates relief remains a key ask, allowing businesses the financial headroom to survive, on this long road to recovery,” Kill said.

“Given the commitment and support, over the last two years, that the sector has given to the government’s public health strategy, it is only right that they recognize and support the hardest-hit industries through the final phase of this crisis.”

Previously, live music executives said free lateral flow tests were “essential” for keeping gigs and festivals safe.

David Martin, CEO of the Featured Artists’ Coalition, told NME in January: “Our industry has been encouraging artists, crew and fans to take LFTs since music events slowly started to reopen following the extending and damaging period of shut down.

“Evidence of a negative test still represents the best method of ensuring events operate safely while transmission of the virus continues to be a risk. Indeed, the government’s own Plan B measures include the use of LFTs as a key mitigation measure for attendance at events.”

He added that removing free access to the tests would be a “complete own goal” and would “represent yet another example of mixed messaging for a sector that, over the last 22 months, has faced its most challenging period in a generation”.

Yesterday (February 20), Music Venue Trust CEO Mark Davyd said the then-rumoured “living with COVID” plan was “very much a mixed bag of changes with positive and negative aspects for the music industry”.

“On the one hand, changes to travel rules on testing and the forthcoming changes to isolation are positive moves for international traveling and will provide additional assurances to US, European and other artists that tours can go ahead as planned with a degree of certainty,” David told NME

“On the negative side, it remains the case that a significant number of vulnerable people, particularly the immunosuppressed, face the choice of taking known risks to take part in live music, both artists and audiences.”

He added that scrapping access to free tests would create a “complicated situation for venues who want to continue to what they can to protect their community”.

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