Prime Minister confirms Covid restrictions will be eased as Plan B measures dropped

Plan B measures aimed at tackling the spread of Covid-19 are to be dropped across England, the Prime Minister has announced.

By Rebecca Marano
Wednesday, 19th January 2022, 1:30 pm

Boris Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons more than 90% of over-60s across the UK had now had booster vaccines to protect them, and scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked.

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The Government will make an announcement about easing Covid travel restrictions “in the next few days”, the Prime Minister has said.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London. Picture date: Wednesday January 19, 2022. PA.

Boris Johnson confirms Plan B measures to be dropped across England

Last updated: Wednesday, 19 January, 2022, 17:15

  • Plan B measures aimed at tackling the spread of Covid-19 are to be dropped across England, the Prime Minister has announced.
  • Boris Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons more than 90% of over-60s across the UK had now had booster vaccines to protect them, and scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked.
  • Covid-19 infections falling across most of the UK

Leeds professor criticises move to reduce restrictions

Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said: “It is striking that the Government are so adept at moving to reduce restrictions early when they have repeatedly failed to act in a timely fashion to prevent now five consecutive waves of (Covid) resulting in profound human and economic cost.

“There is a mistaken notion that the virus is somehow evolving to become less virulent, more transmissible, and this is being inaccurately lauded as endemicity by various parties.

“Endemic, sadly, does not mean benign, as sufferers of malaria, TB, HIV, and Lassa fever might tell you.”

He added that “viruses do not evolve to become less virulent, necessarily, they evolve to ensure they can thrive and transmit effectively”, and said Omicron “cannot be used to set a trajectory” for how Covid will behave in the future.

Nursing leaders hit back at Boris Johnson after Plan B measures scrapped

Nursing leaders have hit back at Boris Johnson after he announced that Plan B measures across England are to be scrapped.

Royal College of Nursing chief executive Pat Cullen said the country cannot rely on vaccines alone and the pressure on health services is “unrelenting”.

Meanwhile, some scientists have warned that dropping the restrictions so soon is a risk and could backfire.

Ms Cullen said: “The Prime Minister’s decision to loosen the restrictions may have relieved the pressure from his backbenchers but will do nothing to relieve the pressure on the NHS.

“We can’t rely on the vaccine alone when the situation is still so precariously balanced.

“Time will tell whether dropping other measures when the pressure on health and social care services remains unrelenting was wise – particularly when thousands of unvaccinated nursing staff are facing the sack.

“Ministers should adopt a cautious approach. The Government will regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency.

“With so many Covid-19 patients still in hospital, it would be very premature to conclude this wave is over. That is not what our members are telling us.”

A total of 18,979 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 18, Government figures show – down 4% week-on-week, but still 30% higher than at the start of the month.

During the second wave of coronavirus, the number of hospital patients peaked at 39,254 on January 18 2021.

Some 703 Covid-19 patients were in mechanical ventilation beds on January 18 this year – down 11% week-on-week and well below the second-wave peak of 4,077.

There were 1,752 Covid-19 hospital admissions on January 15, the latest UK-wide figure available, down 15% week-on-week.

Admissions during the second wave peaked at 4,583 on January 12 2021.

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist from the University of Warwick, said: “Removing Plan B measures in the face of extremely high levels of infection is a risk.

“With over 94,000 cases reported yesterday, talk of an end to the pandemic is premature.

“Infections are raging across Europe and other parts of the world, reinforcing the need to take a cautious approach to easing restrictions.

“Perhaps it would have been wiser to wait for another couple of weeks before removing the advice to work from home and the face coverings mandate.

“There’s no guarantee that infection levels will continue to fall and the NHS remains under extreme pressure.”

The expert said there is a need to “stay alert” for a possible resurgence of Omicron infection and for the arrival of new variants, adding: “There is no room for complacency.”

Professor Francois Balloux, from University College London (UCL), said the Omicron wave is receding in the UK and “provides a case for lifting restrictions”.

But he warned: “An overly fast return to pre-pandemic behaviour could lead to viral flares, which could cause considerable problems for the NHS, and may risk further delaying the return to ‘post-pandemic normal’.

“As such, it may be helpful if contact rates in the population didn’t shoot up immediately, but, rather, slowly increased towards their pre-pandemic level over the spring.”

He said working from home is “highly effective at reducing viral transmission” and it “would thus be ideal if the return of people to their workplace were only happening gradually”.

He added that the high level of immunisation achieved in the UK through vaccination and prior infection means that “no future viral variant can realistically set us back to a dire situation like those experienced in March 2020, or during the Alpha and Delta waves”.

Press conference to be held this afternoon

Health Secretary Sajid Javid will hold a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, No 10 has said.

It comes after the Prime Minister announced that Plan B measures aimed at tackling the spread of Covid-19 are to be dropped across England.

“Children have suffered greatly during the pandemic”

Conservative Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) said it was “children who have suffered greatly during the pandemic”.

She said: “I am absolutely delighted with (his) announcement that children will no longer be required to wear masks in schools and it’s a welcome and evidence-based return to prioritising the interests of our children who have suffered greatly during the pandemic.

“He knows that I haven’t always been a supporter of restrictions, but does he agree with me that under a Labour government far from being the freest country in Europe, we would have had longer, harder lockdowns and school closures causing immeasurably more harm to the poorest, the youngest and the most vulnerable in our society.”

Mr Johnson replied: “The reality is that they (Labour) would have kept us in lockdown in July and – their response to Omicron was to call for a roadmap back into lockdown, she is totally right.”

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt praises “courage” to pre-order vaccines

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement and praised the “courage” to pre-order vaccines earlier in the pandemic.

Mr Hunt, who chairs the Health and Social Care Committee, said: “At the height of the first wave this Government had the courage to pre-order 400 million doses of vaccine without even knowing if they work.

“That has laid the foundations for us having the best vaccine programme of any large country. So, I welcome today’s announcement.”

He said NHS doctors and nurses are “absolutely shattered”, and said “if he doesn’t want to accept the select committee’s recommendations to address the workforce crisis, what will he do to give hope to our brilliant frontline staff?”

Boris Johnson thanked NHS staff and said: “He’s right in what he says about how tired people are. They’re exhausted.

“But they’re also working heroically and doing an incredible job, and it’s because there is 17,000 Covid cases we have got to remain cautious … and we need to make sure that we continue to recruit for our amazing NHS.

“There are now 44,000 more healthcare professionals then there were in 2020.”

The Prime Minister was urged to review mandatory vaccinations

The Prime Minister was urged to review mandatory vaccinations for all health and social care staff in England.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) said he “wholeheartedly” welcomed the announcement of Plan B measures being dropped, but added: “I would ask the Prime Minister to review again the need to sack domiciliary workers and NHS workers.”

Conservative former minister Esther McVey also said: “I too want to question on behalf of the 100,000 NHS workers the mandatory vaccinations. Given the chief medical officer told MPs that vaccination had a minimal impact on transmission, isn’t it the case now there is no reason at all for mandatory vaccinations for care workers and NHS staff?

“Over the last two years, these people have worked tirelessly on the front line, and we have clapped these key workers. Can the Prime Minister now make sure he doesn’t sack them? It is utterly unjustifiable.”

Boris Johnson said: “I think the evidence is clear that health care professionals should get vaccinated.”

News about travel restrictions expected in “the next few days"

The Government will make an announcement about easing Covid travel restrictions “in the next few days”, the Prime Minister has said.

As Boris Johnson gave an update on Covid restrictions in the Commons, former prime minister Theresa May said: “Many of my constituents work in the aviation sector. I welcome the announcement he has made about Plan B restrictions today but I note he made no reference to the tests that are still required for people coming into England.

“If we are going to learn to live with Covid we need to facilitate travel. Will he take this opportunity to announce that when Plan B restrictions are removed next week, the Government will also make it clear that there will be no test requirements for anybody entering England who is fully vaccinated?”

Mr Johnson replied: “We will certainly review testing arrangements for travel and the Health Secretary will be making a statement in the next few days on that.

“I think it’s very important everybody in the country understands that getting your booster, wherever you want to go in the world, getting your booster is going to be a pretty crucial thing to do.”

Move criticised by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer claimed the Prime Minister is “too distracted to do the job”.

He said: “The 438 deaths recorded yesterday are a solemn reminder that this pandemic is not over. We need to remain vigilant, learn the lessons from the Government’s mistakes, with new variants highly likely we must have a robust plan to live well with Covid, so where is it?

“He’s too distracted to do the job and it’s not just the Prime Minister who’s letting us down. Where’s the Health Secretary’s plan to prepare for another wave of infections?

“Why isn’t the Chancellor working with British manufacturers to shore up our domestic supplies of tests? Where is the Foreign Secretary’s plan to help vaccinate the world? They’re all too busy plotting their leadership campaigns to keep the public safe.

“While the Conservative Party tear themselves apart, jostling for position, looking inward, the Labour Party is focused on the national interest, filling their void. We have a plan that the Prime Minister doesn’t.”

‘Long-term strategy for living with Covid-19’, says PM

Boris Johnson said the Government would set out its “long-term strategy for living with Covid-19”, adding: “Explaining how we hope and intend to protect our liberty and avoid restrictions in future by relying instead on medical advances, especially the vaccines which have already saved so many lives.

“But to make that possible we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter. There are still over 16,000 people in hospital in England alone. The pandemic is not over.”

Mr Johnson insisted Omicron is “not a mild disease for everyone”, including the unvaccinated, and advised people to continue washing their hands, letting fresh air in, testing and self-isolating if positive.

The Prime Minister went on: “This week the World Health Organisation said that while the global situation remains challenging, the United Kingdom can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is no accident of history.

“Confronted by the nation’s biggest challenge since the Second World War, and the worst pandemic since 1918, any government would get some things wrong – but this Government got the big things right.”

Legal requirement to self-isolate to end

Boris Johnson confirmed the intention to end the legal requirement to self-isolate in the coming weeks.

He told MPs: “As we return to Plan A, the House will know that some measures still remain, including those on self-isolation.

“In particular, it is still a legal requirement for those who have tested positive for Covid to self-isolate. On Monday we reduced the isolation period to five full days with two negative tests, and there will soon come a time when we can remove the legal requirement to self-isolate altogether, just as we don’t place legal obligations on people to isolate if they have flu.

“As Covid becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance, urging people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others.

“The self-isolation regulations expire on March 24, at which point I very much expect not to renew them. Indeed, were the data to allow, I’d like to seek a vote in this House to bring that date forward.”

Mr Johnson also said restrictions on visits to care homes will be eased further, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid setting out plans “in the coming days”.

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