Source: The Guardian
The government has pledged to abolish almost every existing Covid restriction over the coming weeks in England and “get life completely back to normal”, a course popular with Conservative MPs but which immediately prompted stark warnings from health groups.
“We will have greater freedoms but the cost – at least in the short term – will be that more people are likely to get sick with Covid"
The NHS Confederation said the move would inevitably place renewed pressure on hospitals, while the British Medical Association said the changes planned were “not guided by the data”.
After Boris Johnson announced the end of all plan B rules, imposed to cope with the Omicron variant, by next week, Sajid Javid set out the government’s wider vision to go further, with rules on self-isolation expected to be replaced by voluntary guidance in March.
“I will come back in the spring and set out how we will live with Covid,” the health secretary told a No 10 press conference. “But the way we are going to do this is that we are going to have to find a way to remove almost all of these restrictions, and get life completely back to normal.”
The speed of the plans, even with confirmed daily UK cases above 108,000 on Wednesday, and nearly 19,000 Covid patients in hospital, has brought speculation that the main motivation has been to provide a politically embattled Johnson with some good news for his mutinous MPs.
In a hastily arranged Commons statement on Wednesday, Johnson announced the cabinet had agreed on an end to all plan B measures. Advice on working from home would change immediately, while compulsory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops and vaccine certificates would cease next week.
To the cheers from some on the Conservative benches, Johnson announced an immediate end to the need for pupils to wear masks at secondary schools.
While Javid has been seen as one of the more cautious cabinet voices on Covid rules in recent months, he expanded on Johnson’s theme, telling the press conference he expected vaccination and testing would be the only measures to remain.
“This plan has worked and the data shows that Omicron is in retreat,” he said. While warning of “bumps in the road”, perhaps including new variants, Javid said the UK “must learn to live with Covid in the same way we have to live with flu”.
Addressing the press conference alongside Javid, Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, did not take up invitations to openly disagree with the strategy, but was less bullish, stressing that any end to self-isolation would have to be based on evidence.
While rules on masks would go, Hopkins urged the public to “take our personal behavior seriously” and use face coverings when in crowded places among strangers.
However, medical and NHS groups expressed alarm, while teaching unions warned that the changes were taking place at a time when many English schools were still seeing widespread disruption because of Covid.
Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said ending plan B measures rapidly could create a rebound in still-high infections and “risks creating a false sense of security” with the NHS still under crippling pressure.
“This decision clearly is not guided by the data,” Nagpaul said. “When plan B was introduced in December, there were 7,373 patients in hospital in the UK. The latest data this week shows there are 18,9791.
Chaand said ditching mask-wearing mandates “will inevitably increase transmission and place the public at greater risk, especially for those who are vulnerable”. He also said the announcement of plans to end self-isolation rules was “premature”.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents the healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, accused ministers of not being honest with the public that the decision to lift restrictions was “a trade-off”.
He said: “We will have greater freedoms but the cost – at least in the short term – will be that more people are likely to get sick with Covid, and that the health service will continue to have to deal with the extra burdens that this creates.”
Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that while the trend of secondary school infections was down, it could change: “Such uncertainty could lead to a pronounced risk of increased disruption with children and staff having to isolate.”
A director of public health in a city in the north of England said they were also concerned at the move. “This feels like more of a political decision than a decision based on the evidence and the science, and it could be quite London-centric,” they said.
“We’re seeing a reduction in cases, but they’re still incredibly high. Taking out all these measures does feel risky.”
The changes apply only to England. Covid restrictions, as part of health policy, are a devolved matter.