Boris Johnson confirmed coronavirus rules will end in England, a significant boost to the UK prime minister as he announced the first major Western economy to scrap government restrictions relating to the pandemic.
From Thursday, people who have the virus will no longer be legally required to self-isolate, though they will still be advised to stay at home, Johnson told the House of Commons on Monday. The universal and free availability of coronavirus testing will end from April 1.
“Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental well-being,” Johnson said. “We do not need to pay that cost any longer.”
Johnson’s announcement of his “Living with Covid” plan comes against a backdrop of declining daily infections, hospitalisations and deaths relating to the disease, though critics say he is moving too fast.
Yet he is also still fighting for his political future, as police investigate allegations of rule-breaking parties in Downing Street during the pandemic. Easing virus rules is a key demand of some members of the ruling Conservative Party, upon whom his premiership depends.
Johnson said the government would keep a strong surveillance capability and that more mutations can’t be ruled out. But he said vaccine protection is now sufficient to drop legal restrictions, which have taken a toll on society. He called the shift of emphasis “balanced, sensible, proportionate.”
“Let us learn to live with this virus,” he said. “It is time that we got our confidence back.”
The Conservative Party leader will be hoping the announcement will help the government shift the focus. Ministers have been heavily criticised, with the United Kingdom recording more than 161,000 Covid deaths – the second-highest fatality count in Europe after Russia – despite one of the world’s most successful vaccine programmes.
Even so, there was last-minute drama after a meeting of Johnson’s senior ministers to sign off on the plan was delayed on Monday, amid reports of a dispute between Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid over funding for tests.
Spokespersons for both declined to comment. Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters that the Department of Health had received no additional funding as part of the announcement, and the prime minister told Parliament the “vast cost” of the testing programme needed to be scaled back.
Following the reports of cabinet division, opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer demanded Johnson publish the scientific evidence behind the plan.
“This is a half-baked announcement from a government paralyzed by chaos and incompetence,” Starmer said. “What confidence can the public have that this is the right approach?”
Other changes announced Monday:
- Vaccinated contacts of infected people will no longer have to take tests for seven days
- End of guidance for school children to be tested twice a week
- Until the end of March, people testing positive advised to isolate for five days
- No longer mandatory to tell employers after testing positive
Ahead of the announcement Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association Council, told the BBC the timing “seems a bit odd.”
“Living with Covid doesn’t mean that you airbrush the reality that there are still around a thousand people who are dying every week with Covid,” he said.