The next coronavirus variants “could be more severe” than Omicron and future winters will be “tricky”, the government’s top medical advisers have warned.
Speaking at a Downing Street news briefing, England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty stressed that new COVID variants may cause “significant problems” – including potentially a higher risk of hospitalisation than Omicron.
Meanwhile, England’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance added that “the virus will continue to evolve and it will probably will be quite fast for the next five years”.
“One thing this virus has taught us is not to be cocky,” he added.
“Quoting an American colleague, you can celebrate when the sun is shining, but always take the umbrella with you.”
Timeline of end of COVID restrictions
• Guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing removed
From 24 February:
• Adults and children who test positive will still be advised to self-isolate but the legal requirement will be removed
• Vaccinated contacts of positive cases will no longer be asked to test for seven days
• There will no longer be a legal requirement for close contacts who are not vaccinated to self-isolate
• Contact tracing will also come to an end
From 24 March:
• COVID provisions attached to statutory sick pay will be removed
• Wider guidance on workplace safety that been changed for COVID will be updated
From 1 April:
• Free universal testing will be scrapped and will instead be targeted at the most vulnerable
• Government officials expected the cost of a box of seven lateral flow tests to settle at around £20
• The use of voluntarily COVID status certification will also no longer be recommended
PM unveils ‘living with COVID’ plan
The comments came hours after Boris Johnson unveiled his “living with COVID” plan, announcing that the legal requirement for people who test positive for coronavirus to self-isolate will be removed from Thursday.
The prime minister’s plan will also see free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing end in England from 1 April.
In an attempt to ensure people do not build up personal stockpiles of free lateral flow tests before the 1 April cut-off, individuals can now only order a box every three days, instead of every 24 hours.
The changes will be subject to approval by Parliament.
Speaking at the Downing Street news briefing, Prof Whitty warned the country still has “high rates of Omicron” – with between one in 20 and one in 25 people believed to be infected at present – and that coronavirus remains “a very prominent infection”.
“As we look at the next weeks, we still have high rates of Omicron. I would urge people in terms of public health advice to still self isolate,” he added.
Prof Whitty: Protecting the most vulnerable is ‘critical’
Prof Whitty also said that good surveillance, capacity to rapidly step up and protecting the most vulnerable are “the critical things that we need to maintain even beyond this next few weeks into the rest of this year and the rest of the way that we continue to manage this epidemic”.
He added that maximising ventilation, hand washing and using face masks in enclosed spaces with large numbers of people when there are significant numbers of cases remain important.
Concern regarding removal of free testing
Opposition MPs earlier expressed concern that scientific evidence behind the government’s decision to scrap universal free testing in the spring had not been published.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the PM’s approach of leaving the country “vulnerable”.
“These are decisions which will hit the lowest paid and the most insecure workers the hardest,” he said.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey added: “Is the prime minister really telling people they must chose between money for the weekly shop or a test so they don’t accidentally take this contagious virus into their loved ones’ homes?”
Meanwhile, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford argued the decisions are “bereft of science or consultation”.
Responding to the criticism earlier, Mr Johnson said the evidence for ending COVID restrictions in England is “amply there in the scientific evidence”.
At the news briefing later, the PM added: “This change in the testing regime won’t come through for a few weeks to come, by which time we hope and expect the incidence will have further declined. I hope that the impact on people will be minimal.”
Cabinet row over rule change
A cabinet meeting to sign off the PM’s strategy finally took place earlier today after being pushed back due to a row over free testing.
Number 10 confirmed earlier that the gathering had been pushed back, with ministers having convened later on Monday afternoon to agree the plan.
Announcing that from today, ministers are removing the guidance for staff and students in most education and childcare settings to undertake twice weekly asymptomatic testing, the PM said free tests will remain available for “the oldest age groups and the most vulnerable to COVID”.
The PM suggested the government will set out who will continue to be entitled to free testing in March.
The Department of Health and Social Care will receive no extra money to deliver the testing.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “Cabinet gave unanimous backing to the living with COVID strategy.”