The Guardian’s view on scrapping Covid rules and testing: It’s not normal | Editorial
AAmid February’s gloom and cost of living crisis, there are at least some reasons to be joyful when it comes to coronavirus in the UK. Vaccinations have saved countless lives and allowed people to resume many of the activities they had missed. The Omicron variant did not cause the initially feared spike in hospitalization and death rates, and infection and death rates are once again falling.
The desire to return to pre-pandemic life is natural – a reaction to the sacrifices made and, more generally, to the exhaustion and emotional toll of the past two years. People are tired of thinking about Covid. But the best hope for maximizing our freedoms is to rigorously monitor the spread of infection and empower people to protect themselves and others. The government seems determined to dismantle the very elements that make this possible.
Last Wednesday, Boris Johnson abruptly announced that he plans to end all national Covid regulations from next week, including a requirement to self-isolate if they test positive. The prime minister was driven by conservative backbench instincts, not science, not even popular demand; less than one in five support change. Although his spokesperson later said that “we would never recommend anyone go to work when they have an infectious disease”, many will be genuinely confused by the message, and less scrupulous bosses will urge those infected to return to work – at a time when deaths are still averaging more than 175 a day.
The lack of adequate sick pay already means that some workers cannot afford to stay at home. The problems will be further exacerbated by proposals to phase out free testing, at least for all but the most vulnerable and for high-risk settings. The wealthiest will always be able to minimize the risks for their relatives or colleagues; the poorest will have to try their luck. It cannot be in the interest of the economy for sick workers to infect colleagues and customers. Short-term savings must be weighed against the impact of the disease on businesses, the costs of the long Covid and the setbacks in the fight against hospital backlogs that may result.
Worse still, the threat to prematurely end the Office for National Statistics’ surveillance investigation into Covid – really world-class research. In the words According to Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee responsible for advising on behavioral sciences, it’s “like turning off the radar before the end of the Battle of Britain”. Critical data on the prevalence of infection and the emergence of mutations will not be available, and less will be known about the long-term impact. Experts will be less equipped to monitor the pandemic and individuals less able to make informed choices in assessing risk. Clinically vulnerable people, in particular, will be removed from normal life; for them, that means much less freedom, not more.
The Treasury’s eagerness to save pennies and the Prime Minister’s need to buy support means the UK is giving up essential tools too soon. Appropriate monitoring and support for people to stay home when infectious, as well as encouraging masking and better ventilation, are crucial. Better support for the global immunization campaign is also essential to reduce the risk of new variants emerging. We all yearn to reach the other side of the pandemic and we hope to finally be able to glimpse it. Closing your eyes is the worst way to find your way around.