UK unveils game plan for 'living with COVID'

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Andrew Parsons, No 10 Downing Street / Flickr cc

In an address to the House of Commons today, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a plan for "living with COVID," phasing out free testing for most people and removing requirements to self-isolate after testing positive.

The new plan was welcomed by some, but it was met with strong pushback from several in the science and medical communities. Meanwhile, in the United States, cases declined further as states and cities continue to pare back their COVID-19 measures.

Focus on personal responsibility in UK

Ahead of his speech, Johnson said yesterday on Twitter that the COVID-19 threat remains, but because of the country's efforts over the past 2 years, it can now transition from government regulations to personal responsibility. He hailed Britain's strong vaccine uptake, the arrival of new treatments, and the scientific understanding of what the virus can do.

The United Kingdom is reporting declining cases, though the proportion of the more transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant viruses is increasing. About 82% of adults have received three vaccine doses, according to the Office for National Statistics.

As of Feb 24, people won't legally be required to self-isolate after testing positive, but adults and children will be advised to do so. Free PCR and rapid tests will wind down on Apr 1, but a limited number will still be available for high-risk groups and nursing home staff.

Contact tracing and financial support for low-income people infected with COVID-19 will also wind down.

In an open letter to the country's chief medical advisor and its chief scientific adviser, who appeared with Johnson at today's briefing, a group of doctors and scientists aired concerns about the government's plans to end testing, surveillance surveys, and the legal requirement for isolation.

"We do not believe there is a solid scientific basis for the policy. It is almost certain to increase the circulation of the virus and remove the visibility of emerging variants of concern," they wrote.

Johnson said a community testing survey, a key part of surveillance, will continue at the Office for National Statistics, but it's not clear if will continue in its current form or be pared down, according to The Guardian.

Meanwhile, in a related development, the UK's Health Security Agency today announced that a second booster dose will be offered in the spring to those ages 75 and older, nursing home residents, and immunosuppressed people ages 12 and older. It said the decision is based on a new recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization.

US cases continue to drop

The United States reported 22,053 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 384 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker, a significant drop compare to just a few weeks ago, when the country tallied 800,850 on Jan 16, according to the Associated Press.

The 7-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases is 104,123, with 2,215 daily deaths, according to the Washington Post tracker. In the past week, new daily reported cases fell 41%, deaths fell 10%, and hospitalizations fell 22%.

Federal data from the Department of Health and Human Services show that 61,144 inpatient beds are currently in use for COVID-19.

As cases drops, more cities and states peel back on mitigation layers put in place over the past 2 years. In Utah, mass testing sites will close next month, and the state will begin to report new cases less frequently. And Boston lifted requirements for demonstrating proof of vaccination in indoor spaces.

Health officials in New York state announced they will delay enforcement of a booster requirement for healthcare workers, ABC News reports. The requirement was set to take effect today, but state officials were concerned about potential staffing issues.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID Data Tracker shows that 64.7% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 76.1% have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 43.2% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose.

CIDRAP News Reporter Stephanie Soucheray contributed to this story.

This week's top reads