Will government win its gamble on Covid rule changes?

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson outlined the changes to the Covid rules to Parliament on Monday. - Credit: PA

This week's changes to the legal position with self-isolating and testing are the most significant changes to society in the UK since the pandemic first hit two years ago.

And like millions of others, I do have concerns that we may be taking too much of a leap too quickly. But I have to acknowledge that I have always been cautious throughout the pandemic and I know others will be very pleased to see these relaxations.

An end to the strict rules about self-isolating and the distribution of free testing kits to the entire population had to come - and given the nature of the latest variant of Covid it is not unreasonable to say it should come this spring.

Lateral flow test

Self-testing lateral flow kits will no longer be free for most people after the beginning of April - Credit: PA

In my view, the April deadline to end free testing kits for the entire population is not unreasonable. Assuming no nasty new variant arises over the next six weeks and the numbers of those suffering from serious illness continue to fall, the start of spring seems the best time to do that.

Personally, I think it would be sensible if the government had announced that would also be the date for the end of legally-enforceable self-isolating for those who had tested positive.

While I am sure the vast majority of those with a positive test will stay away from others to prevent the spread of the disease - and the majority of employers will tell their staff to stay away if they're showing symptoms - I fear a minority will be tempted to ignore this advice, especially with the ending of many of the financial incentives.

That is, of course, going to happen whenever this rule is lifted - but to do it in the middle of winter (don't forget you're more likely to see snow in March than December) does seem a bit of a gamble.

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It would have been better to announce that it was planned to lift that rule at the same time as the free tests were being withdrawn - but the die is cast now.

What is interesting is that the government doesn't really seem to have carried either the scientific community or the general public with it on these changes.

The majority of scientists, and certainly most doctors, nurses, and medical staff, seem to think that these changes are happening too quickly. It's not difficult to understand their concerns.

But then they were concerned about the relaxation of the Plan B restrictions a few weeks ago and the government can be justified in saying that has gone well when you look at the statistics.

Where there are concerns, however, is the way the changes are introduced. Ministers announce them to the House of Commons and Downing Street press conferences - but the professionals who actually implement them don't always get the details for several days or even weeks which can be a frustration when their patients start asking them questions.

What has also been interesting is that opinion polls taken since Monday's decision suggest that the majority of the British public also share these concerns about the speed of the changes.

Snap polls seem to suggest that, once "don't knows" are disregarded, about 60% of people fear the changes are too much, too soon, while only 40% think the government is right.

They are instant polls - and public sentiment will change depending on what happens over the next few weeks. That is the gamble Boris Johnson and his ministers are taking.

If serious illness figures continue to fall and more of us are living a "normal" life then the number supporting the decision will rise. 

Another issue that needs to be considered is the question of mental health. We've heard a great deal about the mental health effects of lockdown on people who were unable to see family or friends for months and that is a major concern.

But what about the mental health of people who are anxious about the effects of the virus on themselves or their loved ones, especially those who are considered vulnerable?

As a society are we going to say that the vulnerable should just give up going to the pub, the restaurant or the theatre if they are worried about the presence of people who may be spluttering over their pint or coughing during a play?

If you're going to use the mental health argument to promote one side of the argument, you shouldn't be surprised if someone else uses the mental health card to support the other side as well!

This week's decision to stop self-isolating and stop issuing everyone with free testing kits is a gamble by the government.

Everyone will be hoping it's a gamble that pays off. Only time will tell.