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Passengers disembark a train at Waterloo Station on Feb.21, 2022 in London. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that, as of Thursday, people in England who test positive for the virus will no longer be required to self-isolate for up to 10 days.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The British government is dropping the last remaining COVID-19 restrictions in England and announced that health officials will start managing the virus in the same way as seasonal flu.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the announcement on Monday as he unveiled the government’s “Living with COVID” strategy. Mr. Johnson said that, as of Thursday, people in England who test positive for the virus will no longer be required to self-isolate for up to 10 days. The government is also phasing out the distribution of free COVID-19 testing kits and it will stop tracing those who come in contact with someone who has the illness.

“It is now time to move from protecting people with government interventions, to vaccines and treatment as our first line of defence,” the Prime Minister told the House of Commons. “People will be asked to exercise personal responsibility, just as we encourage people who may have flu to be considerate to others.”

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Most pandemic restrictions have also been ditched in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although self-isolation rules remain in effect in Scotland and Wales.

The British government has maintained a relatively light-touch approach to the pandemic for months despite the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant last November, which sent daily infections across Britain soaring as high as 218,000 in early January.

The number of infections has been falling steadily in recent weeks and dropped to 38,409 on Monday, down 21 per cent over the past seven days. Hospital admissions have also been cut in half since January to around 1,000 a day.

The government recently lifted its work-from-home guidance and scrapped all COVID-19 testing regulations for international travellers. Last month, it also dropped the requirement compelling people to wear a face covering in public areas in England, although some city mayors encouraged passengers on public transit to wear masks.

Mr. Johnson has now gone further than leaders in most developed countries and effectively declared that the pandemic is over in England. While he stressed that “COVID will not suddenly disappear,” he said it was no longer necessary to restrict “the liberties of the British people.”

“We don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others,” he told members of Parliament. “We can rely on that sense of responsibility toward one another, providing practical advice in the knowledge that people will follow it to avoid infecting loved ones and others.”

He also said that distributing free COVID-19 tests had cost around £2-billion a month, and that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Mr. Johnson has put great faith in vaccines and the development of drugs to combat the illness. Around two-thirds of the British population has received a booster shot, including 93 per cent of people over the age of 70. On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that officials will offer everyone over 75 another booster jab this spring.

Mr. Johnson also said that the government will continue to monitor the virus by funding a regular infection survey that’s conducted by the Office for National Statistics.

The “Living with COVID” strategy paper said that officials expect “that the population’s defences against new variants will continue to strengthen as immunity increases through advances in vaccine technology and repeated exposure to the virus.” And it added that “over time, though hard to predict, it is likely that COVID-19 will become a predominantly winter seasonal illness with some years seeing larger levels of infection than others.”

Mr. Johnson’s announcement was met with widespread concern among many health experts who said it was too soon to lift all measures. Monday’s announcement “seems to be a government pantomime geared toward persuading people that it’s all over,” said Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.

Dr. Clarke also noted that the Queen, who is 95, has tested positive for the disease, which “reminds us of what is at stake as the rules on isolation and other restrictions are set to change.”

Buckingham Palace officials have said that the Queen has experienced only mild symptoms and continues to perform some duties. They also said that there had been a recent outbreak of cases in Windsor Castle where the Queen has been living.

Lawrence Young, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, said the pandemic was far from over and the virus remained unpredictable. “This is not the time to let our guard down,” he said. “Learning to live with COVID doesn’t mean ignoring the virus and hoping it will go away. We need to learn to live safely with COVID and that means retaining basic surveillance as well as case isolation.”

Union leaders called the plan irresponsible and said many workers will simply stop testing themselves for COVID-19 because they won’t be able to afford private kits. That, they added, could drive infections even higher.

However, business groups welcomed the announcement. “After almost two years, the ‘Living with COVID’ strategy marks a significant step toward normalcy returning,” said Matthew Fell, policy chief at the Confederation of British Industry. “The U.K. has developed a world-leading vaccine and anti-viral program, and firms will welcome the government’s continued emphasis on these key pillars.”

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