UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that all COVID-19 restrictions – including the need to self-isolate if you test positive for the disease – will be lifted by March 24.
Johnson, who faces potential challenges to his leadership following claims of 12 rule-breaking parties or social events during various stages of lockdown, announced on Wednesday that the requirement to wear masks in shops and on public transport would also end, as well as COVID passes for large events from next week.
"On Monday we reduced the isolation period to five full days with two negative tests, and there will soon come a time when we can remove the legal requirement to self-isolate altogether – just as we don’t place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu," he told the House of Commons.
"As COVID becomes endemic we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others. The self-isolation regulations expire on 24th March, at which point I very much expect not to renew them. Indeed were the data to allow, I would like to seek a vote in this House to bring that date forwards."
The idea that COVID-19 is endemic has been described as "wishful thinking" by Lawrence Young from the University of Warwick prior to this decision, as well as the World Health Organization.
“In terms of endemicity, we’re still a way off,” Dr Catherine Smallwood, the World Health Organization Europe’s senior emergency officer told a press briefing on January 11.
“Endemicity assumes that, first of all, there’s stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels, and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” she said. “We really need to hold back on behaving as if it’s endemic before [...] the virus itself is behaving as if it’s endemic.”
Criticizing the latest decision to abandon isolation requirements for positive cases, Mathematical Biologist at the University of Bath Kit Yates told IFLScience that the decision "feels like a mis-step".
"Rapid lateral flow tests in combination with self-isolation has been one of the most effective responses to the pandemic in the UK, so to abandon it now and allow higher levels of transmission seems like an own goal," Yates told IFLScience.
"Many of the public are still susceptible and many are extremely vulnerable. Abandoning all attempts to control COVID makes their lives less not more free."
Over the last seven days, there have been 618,458 reported positive tests for COVID-19 in the UK. Though there is evidence that the UK is seeing a decline in cases, that's still 922 cases per 100,000 people, with deaths still in the hundreds per day. Many are concerned that without other mitigations in place, the virus could see increases again once these restrictions are removed.
"If we’re going remove some mitigations then we need to make sure we have other measures in place to reduce the transmission of the virus – like improving ventilation in shops, work-places and schools – but there’s no sign that the UK government have even thought about doing this comprehensively," Yates continued.
"To me, the timing of these announcements, when the Prime Minister is fighting for his political life, smacks of a desperate attempt to curry favour rather than well thought out policy, driven by genuine public health considerations. It’s stark how quickly the UK government are acting to remove restrictions, whilst simultaneously failing to act in time to effectively mitigate four consecutive waves of COVID, with substantial human and economic cost."