After almost two years of restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Monday said it was time to live with the coronavirus, announcing an end to England’s remaining legal curbs and most free testing, and making his country an outlier in its handling of the pandemic.
Although careful not to declare the country’s health crisis officially over, Mr. Johnson sought to put the country firmly on the path to normalcy, albeit just a day after an announcement that Queen Elizabeth II had tested positive for the virus.
Some critics say that news underscores the risks of moving too quickly to scrap restrictions, while political opponents say that decisions are being taken in Downing Street to distract attention from a police investigation into whether Mr. Johnson broke the coronavirus laws he himself set.
In any event the statement is another political landmark for Mr. Johnson, setting his government ahead of most others in Europe in its speed in plotting a return to normal life. The new plan means that, starting Thursday, routine contact tracing will end and those who test positive will no longer be legally obliged to isolate themselves, although they will be urged to do so.
The supply of free tests, which are currently available widely, will end on April 1 for all except the most vulnerable, effectively forcing people to pay to find out whether or not they are infected. Enhanced sick pay to support those suffering from coronavirus will end in late March.
Speaking to Parliament, Mr. Johnson said he was setting out a strategy for living with the coronavirus, rather than declaring the pandemic at an end.
“It is time that we got our confidence back, we don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others, we can rely on that sense of responsibility toward one another,” said Mr. Johnson. He added: “Let us learn to live with this virus.”
Wishing Queen Elizabeth a speedy recovery, Mr. Johnson said that her illness was a reminder that “the virus has not gone away.” But, he said, “Whilst the pandemic is not over we have now passed the peak of the Omicron wave.”
The rules would apply only to England, if the changes are approved by Parliament. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own powers over health issues and make their own rules.
Even some of Mr. Johnson’s own lawmakers have expressed concern about the new strategy, particularly because of the restriction on the availability of free tests.
On Monday, a cabinet discussion on the details of the move to end most free testing was delayed for a few hours at the last moment, with news reports saying there had been differences among ministers about the continuing costs of coronavirus measures. Over the weekend, Mr. Johnson said testing was costing taxpayers around £2 billion, or $2.7 billion, a month.
Tim Loughton, a Conservative member of Parliament, said the country had to “learn to live with Covid and not lock everything down and retreat until it goes away.” But, speaking before the announcement, he told the BBC that he had “slight apprehensions in that I think we still do need to have testing available widely, because I think that is the reassurance people can have that they’ve taken all possible precautions and they don’t want to infect other people.”
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said earlier Monday that a second booster vaccination would be offered to adults 75 years and over, people living in care homes and those 12 years and older who suffer from conditions that suppress their immune systems.