London (CNN)UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has signaled an early end to all coronavirus restrictions in England, including the legal requirement to self-isolate for positive Covid-19 cases, if "encouraging trends" continue.
Johnson signals early end to all coronavirus restrictions in England
Johnson said he would present the government's strategy "for living with Covid" when parliament returns from a short recess on February 21.
"Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions -- including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive -- a full month early," Johnson told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The requirement for those who test positive for coronavirus to self-isolate is currently due to expire on March 24. Under the current regulations in England, people have to isolate for at least five days if contacted by the National Health Service's contact tracers and must provide their addresses and the names of people in their household.
Covid-19 infection rates across the United Kingdom have fallen since a peak in early January but remain relatively high. On Tuesday, 66,183 new coronavirus cases were recorded in the UK, with 314 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest government data. According to the latest figures from Our World in Data, 72.9% of the population of England is fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
On February 1, Denmark became the first country in the European Union to lift all coronavirus-related restrictions. The Danish Health Minister told CNN that widespread vaccination and boosters had helped the country open up again despite its infection rate remaining high.
While Johnson's remarks will be welcomed by some in England, coming after nearly two years of coronavirus restrictions, others fear the country may be moving too fast to drop protective measures.
A spokesperson for the UK campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice accused Johnson of "opening the floodgates for Covid-19" while failing to consider the consequences for those most vulnerable to the disease.
"Whilst the Prime Minister is bragging about lifting restrictions a month early, we're struggling to keep up with the number of hearts that need to be drawn on the Covid Memorial Wall," said Lobby Akinnola, referencing a stretch of wall in central London where people bereaved by Covid-19 have painted tributes to loved ones.
"The Prime Minister might wish that this disease was no more dangerous than the flu, but the reality is that he is throwing the most vulnerable in our society to the wolves."
Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the UK's Science Media Centre that Johnson's comments Wednesday were "quite a surprise," although there were "grounds for optimism" in falling infection rates, particularly among children.
"The concern for me remains our more vulnerable people, especially those who for medical reasons may not have responded as well to vaccine as we would have wished," Hunter said. "There needs to be robust procedures in place to ensure infections in this group are diagnosed early and antivirals are provided within hours of any positive result."
Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, told the SMC that caution was needed. "If the requirement on infected individuals to isolate at home is lifted as indicated, it will be an experiment which will either be shown to be very brave or very stupid, but nobody knows for sure what the result will be," he said.
"Omicron may be on the wane in Europe but other parts of the world are still in the full flush of a surge in infections. In such circumstances, as we have seen before, the virus is in the best possible position to mutate again, and there is absolutely no certainty that any new variant would be less dangerous."
Meanwhile, Johnson came under renewed pressure Wednesday over allegations of lockdown parties at Downing Street after a photograph was published by a UK tabloid newspaper appearing to show him gathering with others in an office setting, with a bottle of champagne. According to The Mirror, the picture was taken on December 15, 2020, when England was under strict coronavirus restrictions.