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Covid self-isolation rules could be lifted by end of February despite high COVID infection

25th Feb 2022
Covid self-isolation rules could be lifted by end of February despite high COVID infection

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that all COVID restrictions, including the need to self-isolate if you test positive for COVID, could be lifted by the end of February.

The current restrictions were due to expire on March 24. However, in a recent address to MPs, Johnson stated that if the data continues to show a positive trend, then the restrictions could be lifted earlier.

Currently, if someone tests positive for COVID, they are required to self-isolate for at least five days. Although the data suggests the Omicron wave has peaked, and hospital numbers are declining, there are still over 40,000 cases reported daily. This shows COVID is still circulating in high numbers within the community. So, is it too early to end the need to self-isolate?

The Prime Minister has stated that after the Parliamentary recess this week, The government will set out its strategy for living with COVID. Many scientists have admitted that COVID cannot be eradicated. However, they have also acknowledged that we will eventually have to learn to live with it. It is a question of timing when the situation is right to lift all restrictions.

The country is now in a better position to live with the virus because of new treatment options, and vaccinations and infections have boosted the population’s immunity, meaning the risks from COVID are reducing, but stopping the requirement to self-isolate might result in numbers going up again. In addition, there are plans to scale back free PCR COVID tests, which would affect how the number of cases would be monitored and track the rise of any new variants.

No self-isolation rules and reduced testing raise many tough questions – for example, for schools, businesses and the NHS, and for people who are at higher risk for complications from COVID. Downing Street has said that the law will be replaced with guidance. For example, people will be urged not to return to work if they have COVID; but will people follow the guidance?

Self-isolation for those who test positive for COVID is a key component in stopping the spread of the disease. Although not everyone will have obeyed the rules, most of the public seems to have supported and followed the advice.

So, what will happen if self-isolation ends when COVID cases are still high?

The announcement has taken some experts by surprise, with Dr Simon Clarke, microbiologist at the University of Reading, saying removing the requirement to self-isolate would be, “an experiment which will either be shown to be very brave or very stupid – but nobody knows for sure what the result will be”.

Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases, at the University of East Anglia, was surprised by the announcement on self-isolation and said, “At some point, it is going to be the case that all remaining restrictions are dropped, including the need to self-isolate, though I certainly didn’t expect that to happen this month,” adding that he would prefer to wait a bit longer.

There is also some scepticism about the timing of the announcement. This is because the PM is under scrutiny for events at Down Street during the lockdown. Pressure is mounting from within his party. Questions will always be asked if it is a political move to deflect attention away from ‘party-gate’ but the real question is, what does the data show?

The number of daily cases of COVID is falling. In addition, hospital admissions, and the number of people requiring hospitalisation has been significantly lower during this wave than in previous waves, suggesting the vaccinations, and immunity within the population is reducing the severity of the disease. However, the number of people in hospital with COVID is still high, putting pressure on the NHS and delaying other health services and operations. Another sign that the vaccines are offering protection is that despite the large wave of Omicron cases over the past few months, overall deaths have not risen above what would normally be seen in winter.

Whether the end of self-isolation rules will be announced and replaced with guidelines remains to be seen, and we will have to wait for the PM’s announcement outlining the Government’s strategy for living with COVID. If restrictions are lifted, it will place the responsibility on the public to decide if they want to test and isolate if positive for COVID.

In addition, if access to free testing is reduced, many people will not test to see if they have COVID. Therefore, they will be unaware if they are infected or not. If the guidance is to self-isolate if positive, but it is not a legal requirement, then many people on lower incomes could find self-isolating financially difficult and, in other cases, employees may feel pressured to return to work. Institutions such as businesses, schools, and care home settings will have to work out what systems they should put in place to protect their communities. It would seem that whilst we have to learn to live with it, COVID is still not over.

(Photo credit: Pixbay Commons)

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