Johnson provokes furious backlash over Covid changes
Boris Johnson announced the start of a post-Covid era today by scrapping most of the restrictions from this week in England – but provoking a backlash from Nicola Sturgeon over the ending of free test kits.
The Prime Minister confirmed that from Thursday those south of the border infected with the virus will no longer be compelled to stay at home – a decision which has angered some health professionals.
A number of other changes will be made as the country learns to live with Covid. From 24 March more generous state sick pay provisions are being downgraded, so people will no longer be eligible from day one.
From 1 April free lateral flow and PCR testing – which has been costing the taxpayer £2billion a month – is being abandoned, except for very limited supplies for the elderly and very vulnerable.
Mr Johnson told MPs in the Commons that the cost of the testing infrastructure was ‘vast’, pointing out it had been more than the Home Office budget in 2020-21.
The Department for Health and Social Care will need to use its existing budget to pay for testing in the coming year, said Mr Johnson.
He insisted that people will need to take “personal responsibility” for Covid in future rather than Government restrictions to control it.
However, Labour leader Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson was leaving the public vulnerable and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for Scotland to be given cash to carry on handing out free kits, saying it would be ‘unacceptable’ for Westminster to force a decision on the devolved governments.
Although Scotland has power over policy, the Treasury is in command of the budget, putting a limit on how the devolved administrations can apply those powers.
There are also concerns that employers and workers face confusion when self-isolation rules lapse.
British Chambers of Commerce co-executive director, Claire Walker, said: “Members continue to tell us that access to free testing is key to managing workplace sickness and maintaining consumer confidence. If the government is to remove this, companies must still be able to access tests on a cost-effective basis.
Matthew Fell, CBI chief policy director, added: “While free testing cannot continue forever, there is a balance to be struck between confidence building and cost-cutting. Mass lateral flow testing has kept our economy open and firms continue to believe the economic benefits far outweigh the costs.
“The government now needs to add further guidance on issues like sick pay and employer liability to avoid the risk of a legal vacuum. Many firms will continue to be cautious and use extra measures to protect their staff and customers, as they have from the outset.”
The SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford said the PM’s plan has been “a moment of panic” for the government and lacked “any serious engagement” with the UK’s devolved nations.
“These dangerous choices are clearly political” and made by a government “in turmoil”, he said, adding that they also affect the money devolved nations have to provide testing..
Mr Blackford said the prime minister had “no moral authority to lead” and his plan “flies in the face of advice from scientists and the World Health Organisation”.
They’re not about protecting the public but about the prime minister “scrambling to save his own skin”, he said, referencing controversy over lockdown parties in Downing Street.
SNP leader Ms Sturgeon accused Mr Johnson of putting the devolved governments in an “illogical position.”
“We are responsible for public health decisions in our own countries, but it’s the Treasury who makes the funding decisions and they seem to be only triggered by the decisions Boris Johnson makes for England,” she said.
“That’s unsustainable, it’s unacceptable, but that’s the situation we’re in.
“So one of the questions that we are hoping to have answered today is what the remaining funding for testing is going to be.
“Presumably, England is not going to take away its testing infrastructure completely, so what the residual funding will be, what that then enables the devolved administration’s to support, I hope we get clarity on that later today.
“It would be unacceptable now, as it has been in the past, for the decisions that the Scottish Government or the Welsh or Northern Irish governments think are right for public health reasons are constrained because of decisions on funding that the Treasury are taking only on the basis of what is decided for England.”
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said that any decision to change the existing National Testing Programme “would be premature and reckless.”
Medical experts have complained it is simply too early to consider scrapping Covid curbs. Professor Robert West, a health psychologist from University College London and a SAGE member, told Times Radio the government has decided to “abdicate its own responsibility for looking after its population”.
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.”