Boris Johnson announces end of COVID restrictions in England

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By Euronews  with AFP
Shoppers walk down Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping street, in London, Dec. 23, 2021.
Shoppers walk down Oxford Street, Europe's busiest shopping street, in London, Dec. 23, 2021.   -  Copyright  Frank Augstein/AP Photo

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrapped the last domestic coronavirus restrictions in England, including the requirement for people with COVID-19 to self-isolate on Monday.

Speaking in front of the parliament, Johnson said the country was “moving from government restrictions to personal responsibility” as part of a plan for treating COVID-19 like other transmissible illnesses such as flu.

“We now have sufficient levels of immunity to complete the transition from protecting people with government interventions to relying on vaccines and treatments as the first line of defence,” Johnson said.

Among the measures lifted are the face-mask requirement for indoor settings and self-isolation rules for positive cases. Tests will no longer be free, with free universal testing to end on 1 April.

Yet the government stressed that the pandemic is not over and the virus could still spring nasty surprises.

Johnson said the fact that Queen Elizabeth II tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday was “a reminder that this virus has not gone away.”

Buckingham Palace said the 95-year-old monarch had mild, cold-like symptoms but continued with light duties and following all government regulations.

The announcements were brought forward by a month and come as Johnson continues to weather the fallout of the "Partygate" scandal and after Buckingham Palace revealed that the Queen had tested positive and presented mild symptoms.

Some experts have already criticised the easing.

"The government cannot wave a magic wand and pretend the threat is gone entirely," Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which brings together leaders of the public health system, said recently.

Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at St Andrew's University, described it as "freedom for the few" on Twitter, arguing many people will not have the means to buy tests and self-isolate if positive.

"This week, a 95-year-old woman catches COVID. Having been tested early, she can be prescribed anti-virals which need to be taken within 3-5 days of infections to be effective," he also wrote, referring to the Queen.

"Next week, another 95 year old may catch COVID, not be able to afford tests," he added.

David Nabarro, the World Health Organization's (WHO) envoy for Europe, has meanwhile expressed concern that the country is "choosing a line that goes against the public health consensus" and which would create "a domino effect in the world".

The UK is among the hardest-hit countries globally, with more than 160,000 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic. According to the latest figures, 85% of the population over 12 have received two doses of vaccines, 66% a booster.

Johnson said in a statement ahead of an address to parliament that the end of restrictions in England "marks a moment of pride after one of the most difficult periods in the history of our country as we begin to learn to live with COVID".

"The pandemic is not over, but thanks to the incredible deployment of the vaccine, we are taking one more step towards a return to normalcy to finally give people back their freedoms while continuing to protect ourselves and others," he added.