British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans on Wednesday to lift remaining coronavirus restrictions within weeks, including a legal requirement for those who test positive to self-isolate.
Speaking in Parliament, Mr Johnson – who is battling to save his job after a lockdown holiday scandal – said he expected England’s latest national pandemic rules to come end about a month earlier than expected, as long as a drop in the number of cases and hospitalizations have continued.
The restrictions were due to expire on March 24, but Mr Johnson said he intended to come to Parliament later this month to present a new strategy on living with Covid.
“Provided the current encouraging data trends continue, I expect we can end the last national restrictions – including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive – a full month sooner,” he said.
Mr Johnson gave no further details, nor did he say whether under his new plan those who tested positive would still be asked – rather than required by law – to avoid contact with others. . However, Downing Street later clarified that those who knew they had contracted the virus would still be formally urged by the government to stay away from work and avoid infecting others.
This would be similar to the legal situation that currently applies to the use of face masks. Although they are no longer required by law in England, the government still issues guidance suggesting their use in crowded and enclosed spaces.
It was unclear if or when such rule changes would apply to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which are setting their own coronavirus rules.
Given his precarious political position, Mr Johnson might have struggled to persuade his own backbench MPs to agree to any extension of the legal requirement to self-isolate, with fines for those who breach the rules. So, as well as emboldening some of his most libertarian critics, Mr Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday averts the prospect of a rift with sections of his party at a time of acute danger for the Prime Minister.
However, some public health experts fear the change in isolation rules Mr Johnson wants to make could send mixed messages to a public that has generally adhered to the restrictions.
“If you have an infectious disease, the advice is to stay away from others and that’s what we should try to encourage, especially because we know this virus is very problematic for immunocompromised people,” said Gabriel Scally, visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and former regional director of public health.
The government’s new stance allowed it to tell its more libertarian backbenchers that all restrictions were lifted, while saying its guidelines urged caution, he said. “At the moment the messaging has gotten murkier,” Dr Scally added.
In the United States, by comparison, there has been no federal law requiring isolation, just a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people with Covid self-isolate.
It is unclear whether Mr Johnson would lift all travel restrictions, although these have already been eased considerably. From February 11, fully vaccinated travelers will not have to be tested before or after arrival, or quarantine in England, although they will have to complete a locator form. Those who are not vaccinated will have to take tests before and after their arrival.
Although the coronavirus news is encouraging, Britain’s latest daily figures still show 68,214 new cases reported, 1,196 hospital admissions and 276 deaths within 28 days of testing positive.
Wednesday’s announcement is likely to please a vocal contingent of conservative lawmakers opposed to lockdowns, and it was hailed by Steve Baker, who is vice-president of an informal group of people opposed to coronavirus restrictions known as the name of Covid Recovery Group.
There was a colder response to Mr Johnson’s announcement from the opposition Labor Party. “As always, we would like to see what the scientific advice is on this,” said Justin Madders, a Labor lawmaker.
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“Obviously we only heard what the Prime Minister said today, and we know he has motives that have nothing to do with science and have everything to do with protecting of his political position,” he told the BBC.
Mr Johnson is to boost the morale of his backbench MPs after weeks of political unrest over claims the country’s former strict coronavirus rules banning social gatherings were broken in Downing Street by him and others who established them.
He would face a vote of no confidence if 54 of his colleagues requested one; more than a dozen have publicly called on him to step down. Many others are reserving judgment until a full investigation is published into reports of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street being investigated by police.
Wednesday a new picture surfaced showing Mr Johnson taking part in a pre-Christmas virtual quiz near what appears to be an open bottle of sparkling wine or champagne and a packet of potato chips. The Metropolitan Police said they would review the decision not to investigate the event, which took place in 2020, and which had previously been deemed insufficiently serious to be considered as part of their investigation.