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By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) - People in England with COVID-19 will from late February no longer be legally required to self-isolate to stem the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, proposing to speed up existing plans to live with the virus.
Johnson ended almost all COVID-19 restrictions in England last July, and last month lifted "Plan B" measures that had been temporarily imposed to slow the spread of the more recent Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
He has said he wishes to go further as part of the shift towards learning to live with COVID, and England is set to become the first major economy to replace legal requirements for people to self-isolate with guidance.
"It is my intention to return on the first day after the half-term recess to present our strategy for living with COVID," Johnson told lawmakers. Parliament returns on Feb. 21.
"Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last remaining domestic restrictions, including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive, a full month early."
The rule is currently due to lapse on March 24, and Johnson had previously said that he would look to bring the end of the requirement forward if he could.
Britain is also dropping the requirement for vaccinated travellers arriving in the country to take a COVID test from this Friday. Johnson's spokesman said that remaining travel restrictions would also be addressed on Feb. 21.
Johnson is under intense pressure over boozy parties held at his Downing Street office and residence, which are being investigated by police for allegedly breaching COVID lockdown rules.
Some lawmakers in his Conservative Party are vocal critics of COVID restrictions, saying the measures are unnecessary and would not be indefinitely tolerated by the people.
Britain has recorded nearly 160,000 deaths from COVID-19 over the past two years, and Johnson has come under fire for his handling of the pandemic.
While vaccines and Omicron's reduced severity have largely broken the link between infections and deaths, some scientists raised concern over the prospect of scrapping the self-isolation requirement while cases still average around 60,000 each day and the possibility that new, more deadly variants could emerge.
"There is no way dropping self-isolation can be described as sensible public health policy," said Aris Katzourakis, evolutionary virologist at the University of Oxford.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Muvija M, William James and Kylie MacLellan, editing by Elizabeth Piper and Mark Heinrich)