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28 Feb 2022

Covid testing, masks and isolation changes: what are the rules now?

We explain the latest coronavirus rule changes in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and how to navigate them

As part of the UK government's new 'Living with Covid' plan, people in England who test positive for the virus are no longer legally required to self-isolate.

According to the government, this new strategy will 'enable society and the economy to open up more quickly than many comparable countries'.

The scrapping of a self-isolation period is just one of several changes that have been recently introduced.

While some will welcome a return to something near normality, for those who are more at risk it can be a concerning time, and scientists have warned the pandemic isn't over - covid may yet have more tricks up its sleeve.

Below, we explain need-to-knows on the recent rule changes, how to continue protecting yourself and others, and where you can buy testing kits.


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When are the Covid rules changing?

A lot of the changes are about removing legal requirements around things such as wearing face masks and self-isolating, though most nations still strongly advise people to exercise caution and still wear a mask in enclosed spaces or isolate if feeling unwell.

However, removing access to financial support and free tests is likely to make this much harder for some, particularly as the cost of living squeeze continues.

England

Self-isolating is no longer a legal requirement, though government advice still suggests you should stay at home and avoid contact with others for five days if you test positive for Covid.

However, due to changes set out in the Living with Covid plan, self-isolation support payments for lower-income households will no longer be available.

If you regularly use London's public transport network, note that face coverings are no longer an official requirement on Transport for London tubes, trains or buses. However, wearing a face mask is still 'strongly encouraged'.

From 1 April, the following changes will come into effect:

  • The government will no longer provide free symptomatic and asymptomatic testing kits for the general public in England.
  • There will be 'limited' free symptomatic tests available for 'a small number of at-risk groups' - details to follow. Free tests will remain available to social care staff.
  • Government guidance will change so that it no longer recommends that certain venues use the NHS Covid Pass.
  • Health and safety requirement for employers to consider Covid in their risk assessments will be removed.

Travel changes:

As of 11 February, if you're fully vaccinated, you no longer need to take a Covid test before or after you arrive in the UK. But you'll still need to fill in a passenger locator form, and bear in mind rules for other countries you are travelling from or to may differ.

You can find out the latest info at theUK government Covid infosite.


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Northern Ireland

As of 15 February, wearing a face covering in public places is not a legal requirement. You won't need to show a Covid certification at nightclubs and large indoor events to gain entry.

There is no limit on the number of people who can gather indoors in private homes.

As of 11 February, those that are fully vaccinated no longer need to take a Covid test before or after arrival in Northern Ireland. You still need to fill in a passenger locator form.

Travelers that aren't fully vaccinated are asked to take a pre-departure test two days before arrival and a PCR test on day two after arriving in Northern Ireland. Quarantine isn't necessary unless the day two PCR test is positive.

Scotland

In Scotland, legal Covid restrictions will be ending on 21 March - that includes the wearing of face coverings. In other words, you won't be required to wear a face covering if you're on public transport or at an indoor venue.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that there are no plans to make changes to self-isolation rules for those that have tested positive.

From 28 February, high school pupils and staff will no longer need to wear face coverings in classrooms. A post on the gov.scot website notes that teachers and pupils who wish to continue to wear a face covering should be 'fully supported'.

Other recent changes:

As of 11 February, travelers that are fully vaccinated don't need to take a Covid test before or after arriving in Scotland, but will need to complete a passenger locator form.

Travelers that aren't yet fully vaccinated need to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on or before day two after arriving in Scotland. You won't need to quarantine unless the result of that PCR test comes back positive.

Wales

From 28 February, face coverings will only be legally required in retail stores, on public transport and within health and care environments.

Other recent changes:

As of 18 February, showing your NHS Covid Pass at venues and events is not a legal requirement.

As of 11 February, if you're fully vaccinated, you don't need to take a Covid test before or after you arrive in Wales. You will still need to complete a passenger locator form.

Travelers that aren't yet fully vaccinated need to take a pre-departure test and a PCR test on or before day two after arriving in Wales. You won't need to quarantine unless the result of that PCR test comes back positive.

Can you still get a free lateral flow test?

Yes, but not for long.

From 1 April, only individuals that are classed as 'vulnerable' will be able to receive free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing.

As things stand, you can order free rapid lateral flow tests online through the gov.uk website (though they do run out quite regularly, so you may need a few attempts).

Each pack contains 7 tests and you're allowed to order a new one every three days.

If you aren't able to use the online service, you can call 119 - it's free from mobiles and landlines and open daily from 7am to 11pm.

Can you still get a free PCR test?

Yes, PCR tests can be ordered via the gov.uk website and are recommended if you have any of these three Covid symptoms:

  • A high temperature
  • A new, continuous cough
  • Lost or changed sense or smell or taste

Where to buy lateral flow tests (LFTs)

If you're looking for somewhere nearby to grab a testing kit from, we suggest visiting the gov.uk website and trying its free test finder tool.

Load up the tool and enter in a town, city or postcode. You'll get presented with a list of places and offered directions on how to get there.

Cheap lateral flow tests to buy

Some high street pharmacies have already announced they are now selling lateral flow tests, in preparation for when most people can no longer access free ones.

These include:

  • Superdrug and Lloyd's Pharmacy have announced they will sell individual tests for £1.99 once the free ones go. Superdrug says it will also have a 5-pack for £9.79. You can currently buy a non-travel 5-packs from Lloyd for £9.49.
  • Bootsis selling single lateral flow tests for £5.99, a 4-pack for £17 (neither suitable for travel testing), and a verified test option with travel certificate for £14.99. Available from Boots.

If you're looking to book a Covid test before your next holiday, check in with our expert advice guide - the best cheap day two Covid tests for travel

Booster vaccines

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised the UK government to provide another Covid booster for those most at risk.

It will be offered to all adults over 75, plus vulnerable individuals over the age of 12. It will roll out in the UK this Spring.

Covid vaccines explained: protection, safety, side effects and how to get yours -find out more about covid vaccination in our full guide.