England’s Plan B measures are to end from next Thursday, with mandatory face coverings in public places and Covid passports both dropped, Boris Johnson has announced.
The prime minister also said the government would immediately drop its advice for people to work from home.
The PM said England was reverting to “Plan A” due to boosters and how people had followed Plan B measures.
He told MPs scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked nationally.
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 said, this should not be seen as the “finish line” because the virus and future variants cannot be eradicated – instead “we must learn to live with Covid in the same way we live with flu”.
He urged people to continue taking steps to keep the virus at bay, including hand washing, ventilating rooms and self-isolating if positive – and pressed those who were unvaccinated to come forward to get their jabs.
Earlier, in a statement to MPs in the House of Commons, the prime minister said:
- Mandatory Covid passports for entering nightclubs and large events would end, though organisations could choose to use the NHS Covid pass if they wished
- People would no longer be advised to work from home and should discuss their return to offices with employers
- Face masks will no longer be mandated, though people are still advised to wear coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces and when meeting strangers
- From Thursday, secondary school pupils will no longer have to wear face masks in classrooms and government guidance on their use in communal areas would be removed “shortly”
Further announcements on the easing of travel rules and restrictions on care home visits in England are expected in the coming days, Boris Johnson added.
The prime minister also said the government intended to end the legal requirement for people who test positive for Covid to self-isolate – and replace it with advice and guidance.
The current regulations around self-isolation expire on 24 March. Mr Johnson said he expected not to renew them then – and suggested that date could be brought forward if the data allows.
Citing the latest infection study by the Office for National Statistics, Mr Johnson said its data showed that infections levels were falling in England. He also said hospital admissions had stabilised and scientists believed “it is likely that the Omicron wave has now peaked nationally”.
However, he said he did expect cases to continue rising in primary schools and pointed to significant pressures on the NHS in north-east and north-west England.
Looking ahead, Mr Johnson said the government would set out its long-term strategy for living with coronavirus.
He urged people to “remain cautious” during the last weeks of winter as there were still “significant pressures” on the NHS and the pandemic was “not over”.
In response, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he would back lifting Plan B measures “as long as the science says it is safe” and accused the prime minister of being “too distracted” to have a “robust plan to live well with Covid”.
School leaders’ unions said Covid remained a challenge for schools, with high numbers of staff and pupils absent.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, welcomed the end of face coverings in classrooms, but warned the government risked giving the impression the crisis was over when there was still huge disruption in education.
And the Royal College of Nursing said 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,” its chief executive Pat Cullen said.
But for the hospitality sector, which suffered as people worked from home and were cautious over Omicron, there was relief. Industry group UKHospitality said businesses could now begin their revival and recovery.
The whole of Plan B is going. But is it too soon?
Infections levels, while falling, are still well above what they were last winter. And hospital admissions have only just started coming down.
The fact remains that England – and the rest of the UK for that matter – is one of the best protected nations when you combine the immunity built up by vaccination and previous infection.
This does not mean people will not catch the virus in the future, but it does limit how many will become seriously ill.
What’s more, this Omicron wave appears to have peaked at just over 2,000 hospital admissions a day – very much best-case scenario territory.
This has given both ministers and the scientists advising them confidence that it’s at least time to ease restrictions.
Others will argue this is going too far, too quickly.
But in the end it comes down to a judgement about what is proportionate.
And certainly you have to wonder what impact the politics involved in this has had – the Tory backbenchers were unlikely to vote to keep any part of Plan B.
But in the end it also comes down to a judgement about what is proportionate.
There is a trade-off that has to be made between the costs of such restrictions and the benefits they bring.
With the worst of the Omicron wave almost certainly over, the benefits were reducing.
The latest Covid restrictions were first introduced in December to try to slow the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant and allow time for the booster vaccine rollout.
UK daily infections remain high but are falling – on Wednesday, the UK recorded 108,069 new cases.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser, said case rates would largely decline but “may plateau at some point”.
Vaccine uptake and mask wearing around strangers would determine how quickly that happens, she added.
Hospital admissions also appear to be decreasing. However, there is a lag between people catching the virus and becoming seriously ill so deaths are continuing to rise – and are up 14.7% on last week.
On Wednesday, 359 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded.
Nearly 37 million boosters have been given across the UK so far.
The UK’s devolved nations set their own Covid restrictions and have moved at different speeds in introducing and easing them throughout the pandemic.
In Scotland, some restrictions will be lifted from Monday, including allowing nightclubs to reopen and removing limits on indoor events.
In Wales, crowds will return to sporting events from Friday and nightclubs can reopen the following week. In Northern Ireland, nightclubs remain closed and indoor standing events are not allowed.
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