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UK Government’s plan for living with COVID-19 fails to support most vulnerable

On 21 February 2022, the Prime Minister announced the UK Government’s plan for living with COVID-19. Some of the changes will affect all nations of the UK. Others will apply only in England.

What’s in the Government’s plan for living with COVID-19?

Under the UK Government’s plan for living with COVID-19, restrictions in England will become guidance instead of legal rules. The only exceptions will be international travel rules which will stay as laws.

From Thursday 24 February, self-isolation in England will become guidance and routine contact tracing will stop. At the same time, the self-isolation support payment will end in England.

On Thursday 24 March, COVID-19 rules for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will end for the whole of the UK. That means it won’t be available from the very first day of sickness. It will be available through the usual SSP rules.

And in England from 1 April:

  • people won’t be advised to stay at home if they have symptoms - unless they've tested positive. Instead, the Government says they should take personal responsibility for their actions, like they do if they have flu
  • free COVID-19 tests will end for most people – that includes PCR and lateral flow tests. Free tests will only be available for the most vulnerable and social care workers. And only if they have symptoms. Other people will need to buy tests.

The Scottish First Minister said Scotland will keep free lateral flow tests after they stop in England. She hasn't confirmed how long that’ll be for.

The Prime Minister says they’re taking these steps because:

  • immunity is high in the population
  • the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths continue to decline
  • boosters offer strong protection against severe illness and hospitalisation
  • there are now new antiviral and therapeutic tools for vulnerable people who get COVID-19. These help avoid severe illness or hospitalisation
  • Omicron is less severe, so testing is much less important or valuable in preventing serious illness
  • test and trace costs more than the whole budget for the Home Office, so they need to reduce it.

What’s the UK Government doing to protect people who are vulnerable to COVID-19?

The Prime Minister said the Government’s plan included measures to help the most vulnerable. As well as free COVID-19 testing, he says they’ll still provide targeted vaccines and treatment. They’re also offering an extra booster jab in spring 2022 for the most vulnerable.

By 1 April, the Government says it’ll publish guidance for people who are at higher risk despite vaccination. That could include you if you take certain DMTs.

The ONS survey which monitors the virus in the population will continue. This should help spot any future outbreaks, including new variants of coronavirus. The Prime Minster said that large-scale testing can start up again quickly if it needs to.

What does the COVID-19 plan mean for people living with MS?

Most people with MS are well protected from COVID-19 by the vaccines. So far, studies indicate most disease modifying therapies (DMTs) for MS don’t increase your risk of getting COVID-19 or having worse symptoms. If you’ve been fully vaccinated and have no other risk factors, you’re at similar level of risk as everyone else in the UK.

But we know that some DMTs can make it less likely the vaccine will be as effective for you. And we know some people with MS are at greater risk of severe illness if they catch COVID-19 because of other risk factors.

That’s why we wrote to the Prime Minister last week along with 17 other charities. We urged him to make sure the plan for living with COVID-19 supported and protected people at increased risk. And enabled them to live normal lives. Unfortunately, the plan failed to deliver what was needed.

Phillip Anderson, our Head of Policy, says:

“The Prime Minister’s plan for living with COVID-19 fails to give a credible explanation of how over 500,000 immunocompromised people, including some with MS, can live safely alongside the virus. The announcement of a further booster is welcome. But this'll be little comfort to people who're less protected – or not protected at all – by further vaccine doses.

“Throughout the pandemic, universal free testing has been a crucial tool. It's helped many vulnerable people to continue living normal lives by reassuring them that people they're meeting don't have COVID. Taking this away isn't only reckless but dangerous. And instead of ‘restoring freedom’, it may force vulnerable people back into isolation with no support from the government whatsoever."

What should I do now?

We’ve produced information with our medical advisers estimating the relative risks for people with MS in different situations.

Read our information on MS and risk from COVID-19

We hope this’ll help you make decisions about what situations you’re comfortable with. You should follow your MS team's advice about managing risk.

We won’t stop speaking up to government about what people with MS need.

What we want to see now

We will be calling on the Government to:

  • urgently clarify exactly which vulnerable groups will continue to get free tests if they have symptoms and how they can access them. We understand it’ll include all those eligible for the COVID-19 treatments.
  • give friends and family members of vulnerable people access to free tests, too.
  • make testing available to these groups of people whether or not they have symptoms.
  • urgently improve access to the COVID-19 treatments. We know many of you have faced challenges in getting them quickly and easily.
  • set out a plan for getting effective, preventative COVD-19 treatments to people that are less well protected by vaccines.
  • Improve communication with vulnerable people. In particular, upcoming updated guidance for immunocompromised people needs to be helpful. And communicated directly to those affected.
  • explain how the additional “spring booster” jab will be rolled out, and how people will be invited
  • clarify whether testing will still be routine in the NHS and social care settings.