British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday that his government will end all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England, including the requirement for people with COVID-19 to self-isolate.
In a news conference, Johnson said the country was moving to a model of personal responsibility as part of a plan for treating COVID-19 like other common illnesses such as flu.
But he noted the new strategy does not mean the problem has disappeared.
"Today is not the day we can declare victory over COVID, because this virus is not going away," Johnson said. "But it is the day when all the efforts of the last two years finally enabled us to protect ourselves whilst restoring our liberties in full."
Under the new plan, mandatory self-isolation for people with COVID-19 will end starting Thursday and the routine tracing of infected people's contacts will stop. People will still be advised to stay home if they are sick, but they will no longer get financial support when they do so.
Monday's announcement applies only to England, which is home to 56 million of the U.K.'s 67 million people. It leaves England with fewer restrictions than most other European countries, with the exception of Denmark, the Associated Press reported.
Other pandemic measures will be eased: Starting April 1, PCR tests will be free only for older people and the immune-compromised. The government will also stop offering free rapid virus tests, though they will be available for purchase.
While heralding the easing of COVID restrictions, Johnson said scientists were "certain there will be new variants and it is very possible they will be worse than Omicron."
Johnson noted the fact that Queen Elizabeth II tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday was a reminder that the coronavirus was still striking many.
Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said prevalence of the virus was still "very high" and urged people to continue to self-isolate if they had COVID-19.
"People should still, if they have COVID, try to prevent other people getting it, and that means self-isolating," he said.
Johnson's government lifted most virus restrictions in January, scrapping vaccine passports for venues and ending mask mandates in most settings apart from hospitals in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which set their own public health rules, also have opened up, although more slowly, the AP reported.
A combination of high vaccination rates in the U.K. and the milder Omicron variant meant those moves didn't trigger a surge in hospitalizations and deaths. Both are falling, though the U.K. still has Europe's highest coronavirus toll after Russia, the AP said.
In Britain, 85% of people age 12 and up have had two vaccine doses and almost two-thirds have had a third booster shot, according to the AP.
Some scientists expressed alarm over England's new policy, saying that ending government support for people to test and isolate would hit poor people the hardest.
"Today's announcement is not a plan for living with COVID, it is a plan for reducing spending on testing and cutting support for people who have or may have COVID," Trish Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health services at the University of Oxford, told the AP.
"Learning to live with COVID does not mean pretending it isn't highly prevalent or pretending the virus is no longer dangerous," she noted.
Visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on COVID travel restrictions in other countries.