The UK government’s self-isolation rules will be lifted in England by the end of next week, officials have said amid consistent drops in the number of COVID-19 hospital admissions.
The change, announced on Saturday, marks the end of all domestic CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus legal restrictions in England. Hospital admissions for COVID-19 were down another 13.1 percent this week following a month of declining patient numbers.
Downing Street confirmed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson intends to repeal all pandemic-related regulations that restrict public freedoms in England when he lays out his strategy for living with COVID-19 in Parliament on Monday.
“COVID will not suddenly disappear, and we need to learn to live with this virus and continue to protect ourselves without restricting our freedoms,” Johnson said in a statement.
He said England has “built up strong protections” against the CCP virus through its vaccine rollouts, tests, new treatments, and “the best scientific understanding of what this virus can do.”
Johnson also touted the government’s vaccination programme as the reason England is “in a position” to scrap the restrictions.
Under the UK’s devolution system, public health policies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are set by local legislatures and administrations, while in England, policies are decided by the overarching UK government in Westminster.
Downing Street said pharmaceutical interventions will “continue to be our first line of defence,” with the vaccination programme remaining “open to anyone who has not yet come forward,” but “government intervention in people’s lives can now finally end.”
Ministers have also suggested that free lateral flow tests could also come to an end, with exceptions for the vulnerable and elderly.
Armed forces minister James Heappey told Sky News on Thursday that he believes people can “change our behaviours and worry less about the need to have ourselves tested,” as future CCP virus variants are expected to be “as mild or, more probably, milder than Omicron.”
He said the proposal to scrap free tests was “the direction of travel” but that Johnson would announce his final decision shortly.
However, Downing Street appeared to keep the door open for state-funded infection sampling to remain in place, following reports that CCP virus studies could be withdrawn as part of the plan. Such sampling helps scientists monitor for new variants and emerging strains of concern.
Officials have said that Monday’s “Living with COVID” plan, as well as the removal of quarantine impositions, will maintain “resilience against future variants with ongoing surveillance capabilities.”
Responding to Johnson’s future blueprint for dealing with COVID-19, the Labour opposition party said people should not be asked to pay for tests or get less sick pay when they’re “still being asked to behave responsibly.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting also accused Johnson of attempting to “distract from the police knocking at his door,” and said that while Labour “doesn’t want to see restrictions in place any longer than they need to be, the government should publish the evidence behind the decision to end the restrictions, “so the public can have faith that it is being made in the national interest.”
Johnson is currently one of the more than 50 people under police investigation for attending alleged lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street and the Cabinet office in 2020 and 2021. Members of the opposition and a number of Conservative MPs have openly called on the prime minister to resign over the so-called Partygate saga. If fined by police, a no-confidence vote could be triggered, potentially ousting Johnson as the prime minister.
Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales
Earlier this week, Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann rolled back all legal restrictions, replacing some of them with guidance. There’s no change to Northern Ireland’s recommendation for self-isolation, but the government clarified that it’s has always been a “very strong guidance” rather than legally binding.
Masks and social distancing rules are still in place in Scotland and Wales, but Wales will partially roll back its mask mandates on Feb. 28, requiring them only in shops, on public transport, and in health and social care settings.
The rule may be scrapped altogether in Wales by the end of March, along with the self-isolation rules.
NHS COVID Passes are still required in Scotland as a condition of entry to some premises, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will publish a “return to normal” plan on Feb. 22.
PA Media contributed to this report.