Boris Johnson lifts COVID-19 restrictions in England

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Feb. 21 (UPI) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he would lift restrictions in England while unveiling a plan for “living with COVID” on Monday, reports said.

The lifting of restrictions will only apply to England as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland handle their own health policies.

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“When the pandemic began, we had little knowledge of this virus and none about the vaccines and the treatments we had today. So there was no option but to use government regulations to protect our NHS and save lives,” Johnson said during a broadcast news conference.

“But those restrictions on our liberties have brought great cost to our economy, our society and the chances of our children.”

Johnson added that “the pandemic is not over” despite lifting all restrictions in the country but that England has “passed the peak of the Omicron wave.”

He said that England has a chance to complete its “transition to normality” because of dropping infection and hospitalization rates — but that the country could retain its contingencies if and when another variant were to emerge.

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“In England, we will remove all remaining domestic restrictions,” Johnson said.

Starting Thursday, England will end a legal requirement that people who test positive for the virus self-isolate and end support payments to those who self-isolate. England will also scrap free COVID-19 testing in April.

Minor children and those who have come in close contact with people who have been infected but are fully vaccinated will no longer be required to be tested for the virus daily, Johnson said.

“If you are a close contact who has not been fully vaccinated, you will not be required to self-isolate,” Johnson said.

“We will encourage people to exercise personal responsibility just as we encourage people who may have the flu to be considerate.”

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said during the press conference that the number of people with the Omicron variant “is still high” and that new variants are expected to emerge.

“Some of them will cause us significant problems and they could be either more vaccine escaping but as severe as Omicron,” Whitty said, adding that future variants could lead to even more hospitalizations than Omicron.

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However, Whitty called the changes announced Monday “a gradual, steady change” toward normalcy rather than “one big step.”

“It is important to understand that context,” Whitty said. “This is not a sudden thing where everything stops. It is a steady move.”

While taking questions from reporters, Johnson said that his government has a “clear view that COVID has not gone away.”

“We have to face the fact that there could be, likely will be, another variant that will cause us trouble,” Johnson said.

“But I believe that thanks to a lot of the stuff that we’ve done, particularly investment in vaccines and vaccine technology and therapeutics, that we will be in a far better position to tackle that new variant when it comes.”

Before the announcement, last-minute tensions between Rishi Sunak, the government’s chief financial minister, and Health Secretary Sajid Javid delayed the approval of the plan, The Guardian reported.

Sources told the outlet that Javid has accepted that most testing must end for financial reasons and said he wanted to reprioritize existing budgets rather than seek additional funds to continue testing.

The announcement came as Britain has experienced a significant decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

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Data from Monday shows that the country is experiencing 25,696 new daily cases and 74 deaths, down from 273,526 cases at their peak on Jan. 4.

Johnson has faced criticism from those who believe he is ending the restrictions prematurely.

“Boris Johnson is declaring victory before the war is over, in an attempt to distract from the police knocking at his door,” said Wes Streeting of the Labour Party in a statement to The New York Times.

Queen Elizabeth II, 95, has tested positive for coronavirus and is experiencing “mild cold-like symptoms,” Buckingham Palace announced Sunday.