Health and Science

UK PM Boris Johnson lifts all remaining Covid restrictions in England

Key Points
  • Physicians have expressed concern over the government's "living with Covid" plan.
  • Speaking ahead of the announcement, Johnson said the rule change will mark a "moment of pride after one of the most difficult periods in our country's history."
  • The final restrictions will end in England on Thursday and the free mass testing will stop from April 1, Johnson confirmed later on Monday.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Tobias Hase | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday lauded the lifting of all remaining Covid restrictions in England as a "moment of pride" as he set out the government's long-term plan for living with the virus, prompting concern among public health specialists and opposition lawmakers.

The move will see the legal requirement to self-isolate for up to 10 days after testing positive dropped a month earlier than planned. The government also controversially scaled back access to free Covid tests.

It comes just one day after Britain's Queen Elizabeth tested positive for Covid. The 95-year-old monarch is experiencing mild symptoms, according to Buckingham Palace. The queen is widely believed to have had three shots of coronavirus vaccine, but only the first was formally acknowledged.

Physicians have expressed concern over the government's "living with Covid" plan, with the opposition Labour Party questioning the decision to phase out free lateral flow tests.

Speaking ahead of the announcement, Johnson said the rule change will mark a "moment of pride after one of the most difficult periods in our country's history."

"The pandemic is not over but thanks to the incredible vaccine rollout we are now one step closer towards a return to normality and finally giving people back their freedoms while continuing to protect ourselves and others," Johnson said.

The final restrictions will end in England on Thursday and the free mass testing will stop from April 1, Johnson confirmed later on Monday.

Considerable uncertainty

Downing Street says it is in a "strong position" to consider lifting remaining legal restrictions in England following its vaccination program. It added the pandemic "is not over" and the government would continue to take a cautious approach in learning to live with the virus.

More than 81% of adults have now received a booster vaccine dose in England, while cases continue to fall after the record highs caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The seven-day average of new Covid cases in the U.K. had fallen to below 43,000 cases on Feb. 20, down from a peak of around 183,000 on Jan. 5.

To date, the U.K. has recorded more than 18.7 million Covid cases and 161,148 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.K. ranks among the countries with the highest Covid death toll worldwide.

An open letter from around 300 scientists and medics published Sunday called into question the scientific basis for the government's decision to end free testing, surveillance surveys and legal isolation of Covid cases.

The letter's signatories have requested clarity from the government's scientific advisors on the advice underpinning these decisions.

The government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has said there is considerable uncertainty about the path the pandemic will now take in the U.K.

"Boris Johnson is declaring victory before the war is over, in an attempt to distract from the police knocking at his door," Labour's health spokesman Wes Streeting said via Twitter on Saturday.

Downing Street confirmed last week that Johnson had submitted a written response to police questions about parties held over the last two years. The prime minister has so far resisted repeated calls to resign from across the political spectrum, despite public anger over a long and growing list of alleged lockdown breaches.

Meanwhile, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said on Monday that any decision to end the free Covid testing program in England would be "premature and reckless."

"Any decision to effectively turn off the tap on our National Testing Programme with no future plans in place to reactivate it would put people at risk. This is not acceptable," Drakeford said.

Health and care policy is devolved across the U.K., with different provisions made in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

An all-or-nothing approach?

Public health specialists and infectious disease epidemiologists at the WHO have urged policymakers to resist an "all or nothing" approach to public health restrictions.

"We do recognize this desire to open up, this desire to go back to normal. But if that desire to go back to completely normal in that sense is going to sustain this pandemic going forward for much longer than it needs to be then we really need to think about that," Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said last week.

"If we get hit with another variant and we've already abandoned all measures, it is going to be really hard to put anything back in place," he added.

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Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, said on Thursday that some countries were in a better position to lift Covid measures because they have high levels of vaccination coverage and high levels of population immunity. "But, in many countries, it is ill-advised to lift everything all at once."

She added: "We just need to have countries not do this all-or-nothing approach because it is confusing and I don't blame anyone out there that is confused."