Is this what the end of the pandemic looks like? The UK’s lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions has lessons for Australia

In one of Europe’s busiest cities, there are few outward signs left of the raging global pandemic that disrupted the world for more than two years. 

Today, London’s glitzy bars and restaurants are buzzing, the tube is packed with commuters and the city’s major airports are teeming with travellers.

After vaccines and boosters offered a pathway out of strict restrictions last year, England scaled back its public health measures on what was dubbed “Freedom Day” on July 19.

It marked the beginning of a staggered process of scrapping restrictions until the last of England’s remaining mitigation strategies were abandoned at the end of February.

Now, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 in England is no longer legally required to isolate at home. Residents do not have to keep testing or tell their employers that they have COVID-19.

There is no mask mandate for most public spaces and as of this month, free mass symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public has ended.

A woman wearing a mask walks in London's tube station.
While some London commuters have decided to keep wearing masks on the train, they are not legally required to do so. (ABC News: Lucia Stein)

But the danger of contracting the deadly virus still lurks in every corner of the city and in recent weeks, cases have been soaring.

A record number of more than 4.1 million people were infected with the coronavirus across England in the week ending March 26, the majority with the Omicron variant.

While these conditions would have sparked calls for restrictions in previous waves, the government is unlikely to enact a lockdown or bring back enforceable health measures this time around.

This is the reality of learning to live with COVID-19. And as Australia debates whether to end quarantine requirements for close contacts of COVID cases, the UK offers a glimpse into how post-pandemic life works and what we can avoid.

Returning to normal requires a shift in mindset

In the UK, managing COVID-19 is now an exercise in personal responsibility.

Signs dotted throughout London’s Underground urge commuters to “wear masks” but, without a mandate, the choice to don one is left to the individual.

As student Elizabeth Langton commuted to work with a mask firmly in place, she admitted she has “mixed feelings” about the country’s decision to live with the virus.

A woman wearing a denim jacket and checkered top wears a mask and sunnies on her head.
Elizabeth Langton has continued wearing masks in high-risk places to protect her loved ones from getting COVID-19.(ABC News: Lucia Stein)

“On the Tube and things [like that] I still feel quite unsettled, so it feels odd in that sense,” she said. 

“But a little bit of normality has been nice for the mental health.”

Ms Langton said her feelings towards COVID-19 changed once she caught the virus and recovered.

“Maybe it was a false sense of security … I felt more ready to tackle the world,” she said.

“But it does feel soon and my family have lost a few people … I have had two grandparents die who have been in homes, so I wasn’t able to see them.”

Her experience is reflective of a broader trepidation people feel about learning to live with the coronavirus after two years of anxiety and disruption.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 was sudden and life-changing. People were shuttered indoors in the name of public safety, often cut off from family or friends due to lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Many lived in fear of catching the fast-spreading virus or passing it on to their loved ones. Now they are understandably cautious about a return to normal, and anxious about the emergence of new variants.

However, there are others, like mother of three Nicole Roberts, who have welcomed the country’s move to fully open up.

A woman wearing sunglasses holds a dog in a park.
Nicole Roberts says she is happy that the UK has unwound restrictions.(ABC News: Lucia Stein)

“To me, COVID is over, I’m happy to say,” she said. 

“There’s a freedom that people were waiting for here and now that it’s here, everyone’s sort of forgotten about COVID.”

Ms Roberts was on a month-long trip to Nassau, in the Bahamas, to look after her mother when the pandemic began.

Restrictions and cancelled flights meant she was stranded and stuck there for nine months, unable to see her kids. When she was finally able to return, she caught COVID-19.

“I’m lucky enough to be healthy. I don’t have any ailments. I don’t take any prescription medication. So I feel like I’m OK, robust enough,” she said.

Such distinct views of the virus are to be expected, health experts suggest, and will form part of the transition to life without restrictions.

“Living with COVID,” after all, means different things to different people, according to Simon Clark, associate professor in microbiology at the University of Reading.

A group of three children play next to a wall decorated with red hearts as two women walk by.
More than 170,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the UK since the pandemic began in 2020. (ABC News: Lucia Stein)

“That phrase, to many people, means doing nothing. For some people, it means reacting to it and responding to it, and minimising its effects,” he told the ABC.

But the continued threat that infection or re-infection with COVID-19 could pose to the economy and its health systems is a sign that the pandemic is not over yet.

Ending restrictions does not mean freedom for all

There is no clearer indication of the lasting effects of the pandemic than for clinically vulnerable people.

As the rest of the country has embraced a life free of COVID-19 mitigation strategies, a whole group of people have faced another lockdown, experts say.

A crowd of people walk around and sit at tables next to the Thames
For the immunocompromised, the unwinding of all restrictions meant they had to take more precautions to protect themselves. (ABC News: Lucia Stein)

Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, is immunocompromised.

For more than two years, she has sheltered at home to protect herself and her family from COVID-19. The abandonment of restrictions has only “pushed her further and further” into shielding.

“The amount of effort it takes to remain safe is much, much higher because the community transmission rates are the highest they’ve ever been and nobody’s wearing masks or taking measures,” she said. 

With so many people infected in England, going anywhere means assuming that “any indoor environment you enter, any public space will have infected people in it”.

As a result, Ms Gurdasani does all her shopping online, she works from home and she hasn’t been able to hug her brother for two years.

She also makes four trips to her daughter’s school every day on her bike to ensure she is not exposed to the virus.

“I can’t afford for her to grow up without a mama,” she said. 

“And I also don’t want her to get ill because I know she has a risk of long COVID, and she herself has asthma.

“So it’s very, very hard, the life we’ve been living.”

Two women wearing puffer jackets and masks walk on London Bridge.
Masks are no longer legally required in most public spaces, but GP surgeries, hospitals and care homes still ask visitors to wear one. (ABC News: Lucia Stein)

To her, a model of learning to live with COVID-19 isn’t simply just “ignoring the virus”, but providing safe environments for everyone to exist with it.

“Living with it means, essentially, long-term change. We have to adapt to the fact that … we’re in a pandemic and it’s not going away and ignoring it only creates mass disruption, like we’re seeing in the UK in schools and workplaces and businesses,” she said

For Ms Gurdasani, a more appropriate model of learning to live with the virus requires ventilation standards in all public buildings and workplaces, public education about airborne transmission and people wearing high-grade masks, particularly in indoor high-risk environments. 

Dangers lurk in winter months

The UK’s experience in unwinding restrictions at the end of winter also has lessons for Australia, according to experts.

While the northern hemisphere has moved towards spring and out of the COVID danger zone, countries like Australia are facing a bigger risk.

Two people write on a wall decorated with red and pink love hearts.
Two people writing on London’s COVID commemoration wall. Each heart represents a life lost to COVID-19. (ABC News: Lucia Stein)

“Winter should make things more difficult,” warned David Strain, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School and COVID-19 lead for his local hospital.

“That’s something we’re moving away from in the UK. But of course, Australia is moving towards it. So really, I think that should be taken into consideration.”

Within the UK, public debate has already turned to whether a fifth booster jab will be required before winter later this year, he said. 

“Constantly keeping a lid on this thing is probably something that everybody right around the world is going to have to do,” he said. 

Only last month, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus told reporters that, “the pandemic is far from over, and it will not be over anywhere until it’s over everywhere”.

While the UK is learning to live with COVID-19, it is by no means virus-free.

It’s an important lesson other countries should heed as they contemplate following in its footsteps.Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

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