In somewhat surprising news this week, Boris Johnson said he plans to end all Covid restrictions in England by the end of this month.

It means that people who test positive for the virus will no longer be legally required to self-isolate. Instead, the UK will move to a model rather like that applied to flu, where people can determine their own ability to go out. Law will soon be replaced with guidance.

The current restrictions had been due to expire on March 24 and, undoubtedly, unions and Labour frontbenchers would have said that this was too early. So the fact that restrictions have been phased out a month sooner will cause even more outrage. Unions have said Johnson is “going too far, way too soon”.

With all that being said, is the Government right to go ahead? And what kind of future can England look forward to without restrictions? Here are some predictions for the road ahead.

Social behaviour

Although the restrictions will end shortly, there’s little evidence that people’s behaviour will shift markedly – at least, not in the short term. 

A recent YouGov poll of almost 4,500 Britons suggested that three quarters of people believe the legal requirement for self-isolation should stay in place for at least the next few months, with half wanting it to remain forever. So it’s safe to assume that a lot of the population will continue to self-isolate should they test positive for Coronavirus, even without the rule.

Furthermore, given how cautious people have appeared in previous polls, it wouldn’t be a great surprise if a sizeable amount of the public also want to continue with other Covid measures, such as wearing face masks on public transport, over the next year – and particularly when the virus peaks again.

The working world

Public fears about the virus will, in turn, shape the world of work, and whether people want to return to the office.

Currently, tens of thousands have been off work every day, as a result of the restrictions. When the legal requirement for self-isolation goes, workplaces could still struggle to get employees back. That’s because they are protected by law if they feel their workplace presents a serious and imminent danger to them.

Therefore, employers are likely to continue keeping their workplaces as “Covid safe” as possible, by way of distanced desks, masks, sanitisers and other measures. Given that many employees have adapted to working-from-home, and the fact that it can save businesses money on renting offices/ other space, we can expect more of a move to a hybrid model going forward.

As usual, however, one can expect Covid to exacerbate social divisions in the world of work. Businesses and employees in the most precarious industries – such as delivery services – or those on Zero Hour contracts will have less choice about how to stay “safe”, given that they cannot work from home, or don’t have a safety net if they take sick days. Small businesses will find it harder to pay for things that improve Covid safety, such as glass screens between desks.

Noisy opposition for the Government

It’s already clear that the unions and Labour aren’t happy about the Government’s current trajectory, believing that Johnson is taking too many risks in removing the self-isolation requirement. As data on the virus improves, though (which is currently happening), their protests may cause less of a stir, however.

Yet one criticism which will haunt the Government is what it’s doing to protect vulnerable people – particularly the immunocompromised, some of whom do not respond as well to the vaccine. People with Myeloma, for instance, are significantly less likely to have a strong immune response, even after two doses. Ministers intend to set out further information for vulnerable groups, but they also need to provide better funding packages for self-isolation and other means of support.

Better treatments

One thing that will almost certainly improve is treatments for the virus, which make it easier for those for whom the vaccine did not work as effectively to stay safe. A number of future medical treatments are being made, such as nasal sprays, vaccines that can be delivered in alternative ways; and a whole range of products that will make “living with the virus” much easier.

A more fractured UK?

We have seen over the course of the pandemic that leaders of the devolved nations have very different views on how to manage the virus. Scotland’s Covid powers, for instance, are set to be extended until September 24. Fractures between administrations, around their separate approaches, are likely to continue, but it’s not clear who they will reflect worst on. Nicola Sturgeon may find that her cautious approach begins to backfire should it cause unnecessary economic damage.

A new legacy for England – and Johnson?

In general, the Government’s approach may convince people that England is more aligned with “Sweden” than any other country in the Covid wars.

At the outset of the crisis, Johnson was one of the most reluctant leaders in Europe to lockdown, seemingly because of his libertarian views, and he is now gaining a similar reputation because he has relaxed measures quickly. 

Some of this may simply be because he is concerned about the next move of Conservative lockdown sceptics (having faced his biggest rebellion months ago). Others will say he is trying to distract from the ongoing partygate saga. Either way, it helps him try to create a new legacy. He will be hoping, at the very least, that an economic advantage from reopening quicker will give his brand a boost.