England’s “Plan B” measures are to end from next Thursday 27th January, the government has announced. Mandatory face coverings in public places and Covid passports will both be dropped, as will the advice for people to work from home.
The return to “Plan A” measures is in response to the success of the vaccination programme and the “Plan B” measures which were put in place to combat the Omicron variation of the coronavirus, which is now believed to have peaked nationally.
But health chiefs are warning that this does not mean and end to the coronavirus epidemic – and in fact they are anticipating increased numbers of infections and hospitalisations.
At a Downing Street press conference, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “This is a moment we can all be proud of. It’s a reminder of what this country can accomplish when we all work together.”
But he added that this should not be seen as the “finish line” because the coronavirus and its future variants cannot be eradicated – instead “we must learn to live with Covid in the same way we live with flu”.
Government guidance remains that people should take steps to avoid spreading the virus including hand washing, ventilating rooms and self-isolating if tested positive. It’s suggested that masks should still be worn in crowds and on public transport, and that those who are still unvaccinated should come forward.
Other changes to the regulations include:
- Mandatory Covid passports for entering nightclubs and large events will end, though organisations can choose to continue to use the NHS Covid pass if they wished
- Secondary school pupils will no longer have to wear face masks in classrooms and government guidance on their use in communal areas will be removed “shortly”
- Announcements on the easing of travel rules and restrictions on care home visits in England are expected shortly.
- The legal requirement for people who test positive for Covid to self-isolate will shortly be replaced with advice and guidance when current regulations expire on March 24th, or possibly earlier.
The government says that the rule changes are backed by the latest infection data from the Office for National Statistics showing that infection levels are falling in England and that hospital admissions had stabilised. Scientists now say “it is likely that the Omicron wave has now peaked nationally”, though it’s expected that there will be increased cases in primary schools, and in certain regions such as the north-east and north-west there is still a good deal of pressure on NHS hospitals.
As part of a long-term strategy for living with coronavirus, the government is urging people to remain cautious during the last weeks of winter, as there are still significant pressures on the NHS and the pandemic itself is “not over”.
A mixed response has come from other politicians, educationalists an health experts. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Prime Minister of being “too distracted” to have a “robust plan to live well with Covid”, while school leaders’ unions said that Covid remained a challenge, with high numbers of staff and pupils absences.
The Royal College of Nursing said that dropping Plan B would do “nothing to ease the pressure on the NHS”. “We can’t rely on the vaccine alone when the situation is still so precariously balanced,” said Chief Executive Pat Cullen.
While the changes were greeted with relief by representatives of the hospitality industry, with a peak of just over 2,000 hospital admissions per day it’s clear that the risk of infection is not over. The NHS also worries that flu, which has been at very low levels so fr this winter, may make a comeback is coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
Some health experts worry that political considerations may have had too much of a bearing on the decision. UK daily infections remain high but are falling – on Wednesday, the UK recorded 108,069 new cases, and Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser, said that case rates would largely decline but “may plateau at some point” depending on vaccine uptake and mask wearing around strangers. Meanwhile deaths continue to rise, up 14.7% on last week to 359, due to the lag between infections and reporting of deaths.
In Scotland, some restrictions will be lifted from Monday, including allowing nightclubs to reopen and removing limits on indoor events, but some restrictions are still in place: shops and businesses need to take measures to limit the spread of Covid, employers have a legal duty to let staff work from home, and face coverings are compulsory on public transport and most indoor spaces.
in Wales, sporting events will be allowed to have crowds from Friday and nightclubs can reopen the following week. In Northern Ireland, nightclubs remain closed for the moment and indoor standing events are not allowed.
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