Boris Johnson Outlines Plan for Lifting Covid Restrictions in England

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain outlined plans on Wednesday to lift remaining coronavirus restrictions within weeks, including the legal requirement for those who test positive to isolate.

Speaking in Parliament, Mr. Johnson — who is fighting to save his job after a scandal over lockdown parties — said he expected England’s last domestic pandemic rules to end about a month earlier than previously planned, as long as a decline in the number of cases and hospital admissions continued.

The restrictions were scheduled to expire on March 24, but Mr. Johnson said he intended to come to Parliament later this month to present a new strategy on living with Covid.

“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,” he said.

Mr. Johnson gave no further details, nor did he say whether, under his new plan, those who tested positive would still be asked—rather than obliged by law—to avoid contact with others. However, Downing Street later made clear that those who knew they had contracted the virus would still be officially urged by the government to stay away from work and to avoid infecting others.

That would be similar to the legal situation that currently applies to the use of face masks. Though they are no long required by law in England, the government still publishes guidance suggesting their use in crowded and enclosed spaces.

It was unclear whether or when such rule changes would apply to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which make their own coronavirus rules.

Given his precarious political position, Mr. Johnson might have struggled to persuade his own backbenchers to agree to any extension of the legal requirement to self-isolate, with fines for those who break the rules. So, as well as cheering some of his more libertarian critics, Mr. Johnson’s announcement on Wednesday averts the prospect of a rift with sections of his party at a time of acute danger for the prime minister.

However, some public health experts worry that the change in isolation rules Mr. Johnson wants to make will send mixed messages to a public that has generally complied with restrictions.

“If you have an infectious disease the advice is to stay away from other people and that is what we should be trying to encourage, particularly because we know that this virus is highly problematic for people who are immuno-compromised,” said Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a former regional director of public health.

The government’s new stance allowed it to say to its more libertarian backbenchers that all restrictions were being lifted, while still arguing that its guidance stressed caution, he said. “At the moment the messaging has become more clouded,” Dr. Scally added.

In the United States, by comparison, there has been no federal law requiring isolation, just a recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people who have Covid isolate.

It is unclear whether Mr. Johnson would lift all travel restrictions, though these are already being eased significantly. Starting Feb. 11, fully-vaccinated travelers will not have to take a test before or after arrival, or quarantine in England, though they will have to complete a locator form. Those who are not vaccinated will have to take tests before and after they arrive.

Though the news on coronavirus is encouraging, Britain’s latest daily figures still showed 68,214 new reported cases, 1,196 hospital admissions and 276 fatalities within 28 days of a positive test.

Wednesday’s announcement is likely to please a vocal contingent of Conservative lawmakers who opposed lockdowns, and it was welcomed by Steve Baker, who is deputy chair of an informal grouping of those hostile to coronavirus restrictions known as the Covid Recovery Group.

There was a cooler response to Mr. Johnson’s announcement from the opposition Labor Party. “As always we would want to see what the scientific advice on this is,” said Justin Madders, a Labor lawmaker.

“Obviously we have only heard what the prime minister said today, and we know he has motivations which are nothing to do with the science and all to do with protecting his political position,” he told the BBC.

Mr. Johnson needs to raise the morale of his backbenchers after weeks of political turmoil over claims that the country’s previous strict coronavirus rules, forbidding social gatherings, were broken in Downing Street by him and other people who made them.

He would face a no-confidence vote if 54 of his colleagues demand one; more than a dozen have publicly called on him to quit. Many more are reserving their judgment until after the publication of a full inquiry into reports of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street that are being investigated by the police.

On Wednesday a new picture surfaced showing Mr. Johnson taking part in a virtual pre-Christmas quiz close to what appears to be an open bottle of sparkling wine or champagne and a packet of potato chips. The Metropolitan Police said they would review the decision not to investigate the event, which took place in 2020, and which had previously been deemed insufficiently serious to consider as part of their inquiry.