England ending COVID restrictions on Thursday

All COVID restrictions will end in England on Thursday and free mass testing will stop from April 1.

The prime minister told MPs the legal duty to isolate for those who tested positive would be dropped as he unveiled his ”living with COVID” plan.

From April 1 the provision of free testing would be targeted to the most vulnerable, Boris Johnson said.

But the British Medical Association, a doctors’ union, said the plan failed to protect those most at risk from COVID.

And opposition parties said the prime minister’s blueprint out of the pandemic had moved too fast, and voiced concern over the scaling back of free testing.

The Scottish government said the public health advice it had received did not recommend lifting the restrictions.

Speaking at a Downing Street news conference on Monday evening, Johnson said “today is not the day we can declare victory over COVID because this virus is not going away”.

He described the pandemic as “two of the darkest, grimmest years in our peacetime history”.

However, he said the nation had passed the peak of Omicron, with falling cases and hospital admissions.

And he said the country could now complete the “transition back towards normality” while retaining contingencies to respond to a COVID resurgence or a new variant.

England’s chief medical officer Prof. Sir Chris Whitty said the ending of virus restrictions was a “gradual, steady change over a period of time”, adding: “This is not a sudden ‘everything stops’.”

He said the number of people being infected with Omicron was still “very high”.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection figures last week estimated that one in 20 people in England had COVID.

Sir Chris said the public health advice for people with COVID would still be to self-isolate to prevent others catching it, as it would be for many other highly infectious diseases.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, warned the virus would continue to evolve over the next couple of years and there was no guarantee that future variants would be less severe than Omicron.

He argued it was crucial the nation retained a virus surveillance system to monitor new threats and the capacity to “ramp up” measures again quickly to protect the vulnerable.

Earlier, Johnson told MPs it was time to move from government restrictions to people exercising personal responsibility.

It was only because levels of immunity were so high and deaths were now “below where you would normally expect for this time of year” that the government could lift the restrictions, he said.

As Omicron was less severe, testing for it “on the colossal scale we’ve been doing” was less important and less valuable in preventing serious illness, he added.

Limited free lateral flow tests for the most vulnerable groups would still be provided, the PM said, and ministers would work with retailers to ensure everyone who wanted a test could buy one. (BBC)

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