Boris Johnson abolishes all coronavirus restrictions in England

PM’s announcement overshadowed by internal row over cost of monioring pandemic

Boris Johnson has abolished all legal coronavirus restrictions in England from next Thursday, including the requirement for those test positive to self-isolate. But his announcement was overshadowed by a standoff between chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid over the cost of monitoring the pandemic and preparing to scale up the healthcare response if necessary.

The British prime minister's decision to sweep away all remaining restrictions has drawn criticism from scientific experts and opposition parties, who have described it as reckless. At a press conference in Downing Street on Monday night, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said removing the restrictions would inevitably lead to a rise in infections.

But Mr Johnson told MPs that high levels of vaccination allowed Britain to move ahead of neighbouring countries in removing legal coronavirus measures.

“It is only because levels of immunity are so high and deaths are now, if anything, below where you would normally expect for this time of year, that we can lift these restrictions. And it is only because we know Omicron is less severe, that testing for Omicron on the colossal scale we have been doing is much less important, and much less valuable in preventing serious illness,” he said.

“Those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations, would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come. This government does not believe that is right or necessary. Restrictions pose a heavy toll on our economy, our society, our mental wellbeing, and the life chances of our children. And we do not need to pay that cost any longer.”

Mr Johnson also announced the end of universally free coronavirus testing from the start of April, although people in the oldest age groups will still receive free tests if they show symptoms. Other at-risk groups and some workers including social care staff will also receive free symptomatic testing but the government has yet to publish full details of who will be eligible.

The prime minister was forced to postpone Monday morning’s cabinet meeting less that 10 minutes before it was due to begin because of the row between Mr Sunak and Mr Javid. Mr Javid is understood to have argued that the National Health Service needed more money to ensure that it would be prepared for a worsening of the pandemic.

But Mr Sunak insisted that any extra spending must be found by reallocating funds from the NHS’s existing budget, which will be boosted from April by an extra £12 billion (€14.4 billion) a year from an increase in national insurance rates.

Labour's shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said the cabinet row showed that Mr Johnson had made his decision to abolish all coronavirus restrictions without proper preparation or consideration of the consequences.

“The government is paralysed by its own chaos and incompetence and the British public are paying the price. This shambles cannot continue,” he said.

“What confidence can the public have that the Conservatives are acting in the national interest, when they can’t agree a plan for Covid? It is clear the prime minister was trying to declare victory before the war is over, simply to distract from the police knocking at the door of Number 10.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times

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