Covid restrictions ending - what does it mean for Norfolk and Waveney?
- Credit: PA
The end of Covid restrictions represents a seismic shift in the way we are asked to think about the coronavirus pandemic.
For the first time since it arrived on these shores two years ago, coronavirus will be - in effect - treated like any other disease, under plans announced by prime minister Boris Johnson.
From later this week anybody who tests positive for the virus will not be required by law to self-isolate, in what the PM described as "a moment of pride" for the nation. Instead, they will be advised to stay at home and take personal responsibility for themselves and others.
The changes, which Mr Johnson has dubbed the 'Living with Covid' plan, will also see the widescale national testing regime dramatically scaled back, with the provision of free rapid testing targeted to certain sections of the population from April 1.
Isolation has been credited with helping to curb the pandemic, but has also caused great strain on businesses, schools and the care sector by creating widespread absences and staff shortages.
The removal of restrictions will now place a greater onus on individuals and organisations - such as schools and firms - to manage their own responses to the virus and has created uncertainty over what will happen next.
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Self-isolation caused widespread issues in schools - especially after the onset of the Omicron variant - as staff and pupil absences caused severe disruption to learning.
But while some headteachers and education bosses have welcomed the end of the policy, others are more cautious, fearing it could actually lead to an increase in cases - and therefore in absences.
The recent half term has seen some schools experience their highest numbers of Covid cases in pupils and staff members alike, sparking some trepidation about the changes.
Chris Read, academies executive principal of the Bishop's Church of England Academy in Thetford, said: "We are concerned that removing rules will lead to increased cases and increased absence, hindering the quality of provision within schools."
Kelly Scott, headteacher of Dereham Church of England Junior Academy, said: "We appreciate the need to move forward and learn to live with Covid in our lives, however, over the past half term we have seen our highest ever Covid cases for both pupils and staff.
"We know if isolation in school simply ends next week, this will cause significant anxieties for a number of staff and families who may either be vulnerable themselves or live with people who are vulnerable."
But Nick Wade, deputy headteacher of Thomas Bullock Primary Academy, at Shipdham, near Dereham, said: "An end to self-isolation will no doubt take us closer to a more 'normal' school day that we all desire.
"Everyone wants to see children mix more freely, whole schools coming together for exciting activities and celebrations - and to be a school community again.
"However, it is not without uncertainty or worry."
Zoe Fisher, deputy chief executive of the Sapientia Education Trust - which runs a number of schools in Norfolk - said: "It is likely that any reduction in restrictions will help schools return to more normality. This may well also enable schools to further enhance educational experiences – trips, concerts, productions visits, exchanges and so on – the things great schools provide that enrich lives. Provided the restrictions can be lifted safely, this can only be a positive thing for pupils and staff"
In social care
Another area where self-isolation has resulted in staff shortages is in care homes and other parts of the care sector.
Rachael Hill, manager of Nightingale Homecare in Norwich, welcomed the end of restrictions.
"I definitely think it is a good idea now - a lot of people are scared to work in the care sector because of Covid and I'm hopeful lifting restrictions will go some way towards easing that," she said.
"It is hard to see how much difference the changes will make to my staff though - we will still be wearing heavy duty PPE every day and taking all the precautions we can.
"I definitely think people have learned how to live alongside Covid so I welcome the changes."
In public health
Speaking previously, Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk's director of public health, said focus would be coming away from trying to break individual chains of infection.
But she said she had seen an overall change in the way people approach illness and general hygiene.
She said: "Never before has there been this much conversation about the ways we can prevent the spread of disease - in the two years I don't think I've actually even had a cold."