The UK government announced major changes to the legal framework in England for Covid restrictions which will see an end to the requirement to isolate from 24 February and an end to free testing from the start of April.

What’s changed?

With almost immediate effect, all the rules in England relating to what happens if someone tests positive for Covid will be removed and replaced with advice for how to manage the illness. This means that as well as individuals not being required by law to isolate, those who live with them will not have to take daily tests (or be required to isolate if not vaccinated). Alongside this, contact tracing will end, and as a result you will not have to test or isolate if you have been in contact with someone who tests positive. The government’s Living with Covid plan continues to advise isolating for five days following a positive test, and waiting until two negative test results before ending isolation, however, this is only advice and not required by law.

Alongside a reduction in the requirement to test is the withdrawal of free PCR and lateral flow tests. Some groups will still have access to free tests, which will probably include the elderly and healthcare workers, however the details of this and how it will be funded were not set out.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon set out the path Scotland will take with the almost immediate removal of vaccine passport requirements, and announced the intent to remove the requirement for face masks from 21 March. People testing positive for Covid will still be recommended to isolate, however it is not clear whether this has legal force. Tests will continue to be free pending a longer term transition plan to be set out in March.


In Wales, rules requiring the wearing of masks will be lifted at the end of March but it is not clear whether this will also include the requirement to self-isolate. Decisions relating to testing in Wales are complicated by the fact that most tests are processed in English facilities at present.

In Northern Ireland, the legal requirements to wear masks have recently been removed, and while it was clarified that isolation requirements are not legally enforceable they remain very strong guidance. In the recent announcement, free testing and contact tracing also remained in place.

Adapting to changed realities

Undoubtedly, the measures put in place to tackle Covid come at a cost. The testing régime alone costs around £2 billion a month. To put this in perspective, this is twice as much as the UK provides in overseas development assistance to countries across the world.

The view of the UK government, specifically relating to their powers in England, is that while Covid should still be treated as a serious threat, it should be dealt with through a range of public health measures similar to other respiratory diseases. In both summer 2020 and summer 2021 it seemed as though cases of Covid would decrease to sufficiently low levels that the impact of any restrictions on those testing positive would, on a national level, have little impact. However, the effect of isolation requirements when vast numbers of people do test positive is that schools and businesses are unable to operate. This in turn has knock-on consequences, which is why the developments to enable people to test daily to avoid isolation were key to ensuring the continued delivery of vital services, in particular healthcare and education.

The question facing the government was, and is, whether the threat of Covid is sufficiently severe to warrant the continuation of restrictions. It would seem inevitable that at some point this step would be taken, but with the extreme restrictions imposed throughout 2020 and 2021 still in very recent memory the shift in approach can be disorientating. Measures that were imposed to restrict the spread of a virus are being lifted while the virus is still in wide circulation.

Three factors appear to have shifted the approach, first the role of vaccination in dramatically reducing the impact of contracting Covid. While people are still becoming seriously ill and dying, this is occurring less frequently. The primary benefit of vaccination does not appear to be stopping people from getting Covid, but weakening the severity of the illness. Second, this means that for now at least, efforts to eliminate Covid from the population appear futile. Those countries that adopted measures aimed at a zero Covid strategy are now seeing waves of Omicron cases as soon as border restrictions are eased. The combination of the enduring presence of the virus and the benefits of vaccination have made living with Covid a more realistic prospect, as well as a seemingly necessary step.

Third, and this factor shouldn’t be ignored, is the politics. The prime minister is in a precarious position and the sentiment of Conservative backbenchers meant it seemed highly likely that any attempt to reintroduce legislation for the continuation of restrictions would fail (the law expires on 24 March so parliament would have to pass new laws). This is also a factor behind the slightly divergent approaches taken in different nations of the UK.

Protecting the vulnerable

While the virus is the same (allowing for variations and mutations) the impact it has on society is highly variable. Not all people are affected in the same way. Whether this is down to the ability for some people to work from home, the necessity of continued education provision to enable people to work, or the simple and obvious fact that some people are more vulnerable to severe illness due to age or existing physical conditions.

Over the past two years a wide range of measures have focused on ensuring that those at greatest risk are most protected. There is evident concern that in the removal of the final restrictions these very same people are being ignored in pursuit of normality”. Ensuring schools can operate, people can work, and communities can flourish are all vital goals, but we should not forgot the imperative to act with compassion towards those who are most vulnerable, and whose voices are most easily ignored.

As a society, we should heed the lessons of this pandemic and ensure that we do not pretend all people are equally affected by the same rules. It is not possible to eliminate all risk, but it is possible to be alert to impact and respond accordingly.

How should churches respond?

Churches have been incredible at responding throughout this season, whether in adapting how services operate, to engaging with their community to provide care and support. In both of these areas, this should continue.

Gathering together is vital for church communities, but those who gather have sometimes ignored the fact that some can’t or don’t. Providing ways for people to engage with church, in particular through online formats, has widened the front door of church, and this shouldn’t be closed. The urgent next steps for churches is ensuring this doesn’t mean people get stuck in the porch but are fully part of the household.

The church is often at its best when it serves the community. Churches are at the heart of much vital social provision, whether that is food assistance, debt counselling, befriending services, or providing community activities that draw people together. Our research has shown that there are challenges facing churches as they resume activities, not least the reduced number of people volunteering. What is incumbent on churches is that the energy they have isn’t focused on returning to business as usual but being witnesses to the name of Jesus and serving as his hands and feet. We know that Jesus transforms lives, and that is news too good not to share.

With no legal requirements on how church services operate — now in England and Northern Ireland, and in the coming weeks in Wales and Scotland — there will be questions for churches as they consider whether they too should remove any remaining restrictions, whether that’s asking people to wear masks, providing additional space for seating, or what form online services take. For those planning conferences, retreats, church holidays and events there will need to be consideration as to what contingency measures are appropriate, what guidance they put in place and whether wider measures such as asking people to take tests before attending are suitable once people have to pay for these.