No 10 'in chaos' amid living with Covid plan discussions as Cabinet delayed

Rules forcing people to self-isolate following a positive coronavirus test will be scrapped under the living with Covid plan. Credit: PA

The government is "in chaos" as it prepares to reveal its "living with Covid" plan, Labour has said, after a Cabinet meeting to discuss the removal of all coronavirus restrictions was delayed.

Several ministers arrived at Downing Street for Cabinet this morning to sign off on Boris Johnson's plan to lift laws including self-isolation, but they were apparently told to leave around 40 minutes later.

It has not been confirmed what was behind the delay but there are reports of disagreements between Number 10, the Treasury and the Department of Health.

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston was told the dispute between Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid was over funding for Covid testing, the free provision of which is expected to be dramatically scaled back.

Number 10 said the meeting was delayed so the prime minister could have meetings to "finalise" the living with Covid plan - despite much of it being briefed to journalists over the weekend.

Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: "A government in chaos. This is pathetic stuff and not how any reasonable decision making should be done. Shambolically led by Boris Johnson."

Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said the PM "was trying to declare victory before the war is over, simply to distract from the police knocking at the door of Number 10", as he made reference to the police investigation into alleged Covid-rule-breaking on Downing Street.

He asked: “What confidence can the public have that the Conservatives are acting in the national interest, when they can’t agree a plan for Covid?"

“Labour published our plan for living well with Covid in January. It would prepare us for new variants and secure our lives, livelihoods and liberties. If the Conservatives are too incompetent to agree their own plan, they are welcome to use ours.”

Ahead of revealing the living with Covid plan, the PM said it will bring the country “towards a return to normality”.

He's expected to set the plan out to MPs in the Commons this afternoon before the PM communicates it to the public in a Downing Street press conference this evening.

The news briefing is expected at around 6:30 or 7pm, with the PM being joined by chief medical officer for England, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

Mr Johnson said the proposal would be about “finally giving people back their freedom” after “one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history”.

The UK was one of the worst hit European nations during the first wave of coronavirus in spring 2020 and the number of people having Covid-19 recorded on their death certificate has now risen to more than 183,000 according to the Office for National Statistics.

The prime minister’s announcement will come just over 24 hours after it was confirmed the Queen had tested positive for coronavirus.

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Business minister Paul Scully said Her Majesty's decision to work from home after her positive test shows "she is learning to live with Covid, that we need to learn to live with Covid".

He told ITV News that the PM wants the UK to employ a common sense approach, with people being advised to stay home when ill rather than being forced by law to do so.

"The Queen, actually - the fact that she's got mild symptoms, the fact that she's working at home - actually illustrates the point that she is learning to live with Covid, that we need to learn to live with Covid," he said.

"It's about taking personally responsibility back," he said, "rather than government diktat."

As announced on Saturday, the UK Government is planning to scrap the legal duty for those who test positive for coronavirus to have to self-isolate by the end of the week.

According to the Mail On Sunday (MoS), the requirement will be lifted by Thursday.

The newspaper said the prime minister will set out a timetable for scaling back the availability of free coronavirus tests – although older and vulnerable people will continue to have access to them, it reported.

Mr Johnson told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme the UK spent £2 billion on testing in January alone and that such high expenditure did not need to continue.

But the Welsh government is opposing any change to the testing programme, saying a move to stop the free provision would be "premature and reckless".

First Minister Mark Drakeford said testing plays a "pivotal role in breaking chains of transmission" and it is "essential" that it continues.

A Welsh government spokesman added: "Any decision to effectively turn off the tap on our National Testing Programme with no future plans in place to reactivate it would put people at risk. This is not acceptable."

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also voiced her opposition to aspects of the living with Covid plan, saying she "expressed frustration" to Michael Gove, the minister for the union.

In a tweet thread, she said: "The reality of UK finance flows means this decision determines the money devolved administrations (paid for by taxpayers in Sc, Wales & NI) have for testing.

"Expressed frustration to Michael Gove this morning that we still don't know & this delay deepens that."

She added that "the concern is more than just an end to free access to testing in short term (a decision I don't agree with) - it'll also be hard for UK to retain adequate testing capacity for longer term surveillance & response to new variants".

"Let's hope common sense prevails".

Downing Street said the vaccination programme had left England in a “strong position to consider lifting the remaining legal restrictions”, with more than 81% of adults having received a booster dose, and Covid cases continuing to fall.

Speaking before his announcement on Monday, the prime minister said: “Today will mark a moment of pride after one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history as we begin to learn to live with Covid.

“It would not be possible without the efforts of so many – the NHS who delivered the life-saving vaccine rollout at phenomenal speed, our world-leading scientists and experts, and the general public for their commitment to protecting themselves and their loved ones.

“The pandemic is not over but thanks to the incredible vaccine rollout we are now one step closer towards a return to normality and finally giving people back their freedoms while continuing to protect ourselves and others.”

There are misgivings among health and scientific experts that the move to abandon quarantine requirements may be coming too soon.

A professor on the government's Scientific Pandemic Insights group on Behaviours (Spi-B) said the government has moved to "abdicate its own responsibility for looking after its population".

Speaking in a personal capacity, he said one in 20 people currently has Covid-19 and 150 people are dying each day.

"It looks as though what the Government has said is that it accepts that the country is going to have to live with somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 Covid deaths a year and isn't really going to do anything about it," he said. "Now that seems to me to be irresponsible."

As of Sunday, UK government data shows that 11,555 people are currently in hospital with the illness, with 331 of those in ventilation beds.

Mr Johnson said the latest data meant it was time for the UK to shift the balance away from “state mandation” and towards “personal responsibility”.

Chair of the Council of the British Medical Association Dr Chaand Nagpaul called it an “odd decision to make” when there are “more people dying, more people in the hospital” than before Plan B measures were introduced last year in response to the pre-Christmas rising tide of Omicron cases.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of Sage’s modelling subgroup, told Times Radio there was a “real concern” that getting rid of the rules would lead to more infections in workplaces.

Labour has also questioned the thinking around scaling back on the availability of free lateral flow tests, with shadow health secretary Mr Streeting warning: “We are not out of the woods yet on Covid.”

But in Munich on Saturday, Mr Johnson said it was “important that people should feel confident again” and that he wanted to “see our country really getting back on its feet” in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The prime minister refused to rule out further lockdowns should future mutations not prove to be as mild as predicted, saying he would have to be “humble in the face of nature”.