British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce on Monday the end of all legal restrictions related to the pandemic in England, insisting it is time to move on despite political opposition and uneasiness from the UN health agency.
Two years after Covid-19 caused the worst health crisis in generations, Johnson will address Parliament to outline his plan, pressing ahead despite news on Sunday that Queen Elizabeth II has contracted the virus for the first time.
However, he is accused by opposition parties of seeking to distract the public, with his premiership in jeopardy while police investigate a string of lockdown-violating parties in Downing Street.
“Today (Monday) is a proud moment after one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history as we begin to learn how to live with Covid,” Johnson said in a statement to Downing Street.
“The pandemic is not over, but thanks to the launch of an amazing vaccine, we are now one step closer to returning to normal life and finally returning people their freedoms while continuing to protect ourselves and others.”
Under the “Living with Covid” plan, the government says it intends this week to end a legal requirement for people to self-isolate when infected with the coronavirus.
It says local authorities will be required to manage more outbreaks with pre-existing legal powers, and are expected to phase out free Covid testing for the general public.
The NHS union, which represents top managers in the state-run National Health Service, said internal polling showed a vast majority of its members were against ending self-isolation and free testing.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the union, acknowledged that the government’s mass vaccination program and the emergence of new treatments for the Covid virus provide “real hope”.
“But the government cannot wave a magic wand and pretend that the threat has completely disappeared,” he said.
David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy for Covid, said repealing the self-isolation law was “really unwise”.
While the UK has suffered one of the worst per capita death rates in the world due to the pandemic, the British official told BBC radio on Saturday, it was still a country with an “enviable record in terms of public health expertise”.
“I’m really concerned that Britain is taking a stance against the public health consensus – that other countries, other leaders are going to say if Britain is doing it, why not do it, and that is going to create a kind of domino effect around the world.”
In the UK-developed system, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have set their own health policies, remaining considerably more wary of Johnson’s intentions for England.
The opposition Labor Party said ending the free tests was like replacing your “best defender” with 10 minutes of a soccer match.
“Boris Johnson is declaring victory before the war is over in an attempt to distract the police from knocking on his door,” Labor health spokesman Wes Streeting said.
Downing Street confirmed Friday that Johnson provided a written response to police questions about parties held over the past two years, as investigators investigate whether attendees violated strict social distancing and virus prevention rules in place at the time.
He dismissed questions about the Party Gate case in an interview with the BBC over the weekend, and declined to say whether he would resign if he was fined by police.
But Johnson insisted that despite clear partisan abuse by him and his staff, the public would still follow directives to self-isolate when necessary, even without a legal mandate.
“Look at the evidence, look at what the British people have done,” he said, referring to general compliance with the rules since the pandemic broke out in early 2020.