Sajid Javid’s axing of all Covid restrictions draws warnings from NHS | Coronavirus


Sajid Javid has set out plans to abolish virtually 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 prompted warnings from NHS and public health groups.

After Boris Johnson announced the end of all plan B rules, imposed to cope with the Omicron variant, by next week, the health secretary 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,” Javid 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.”

While Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, told the press conference that any end to self-isolation would have to be based on evidence, Javid was notably bullish, saying he expected would be 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”.

In a statement to the Commons earlier on Wednesday, Johnson announced that the cabinet had agreed 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 cheers from some on the Conservative benches, Johnson announced an immediate end to the need for pupils to wear masks at secondary schools.

Responding for Labour, Keir Starmer said he would back the change as long as it was supported by evidence, saying Johnson must “reassure the public he is acting to protect their health, not just his job”.

Work from home and and mandatory mask rules to be dropped as England moves back to plan A – video
Work from home and and mandatory mask rules to be dropped as England moves back to plan A – video

While Covid rates have fallen in recent days, confirmed daily UK cases remained above 108,000 on Wednesday, with nearly 19,000 Covid patients in hospital.

Teaching unions expressed concern about the sudden change, warning that many headteachers in England were still seeing widespread disruption to education owing to Covid.

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “While the trend amongst secondary aged children is down, it is however uncertain, due to the short time schools have been back since the Christmas holidays, that this trend will continue. Such uncertainty could lead to a pronounced risk of increased disruption with children and staff having to isolate.”

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, pointed to the high number of Covid-19 patients in hospital “at a time when the NHS is already at full stretch and contending with the toughest winter on record”, and some regions were still seeing increased infection numbers.

Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said ministers would “regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency”.

Unison, the UK’s largest health union, warned that ditching plan B “in one fell swoop” risked jeopardising progress made. Christina McAnea, the union’s general secretary, said: “Rather than allowing a free-for-all, ministers should be urging caution and encouraging continued mask-wearing on transport, in public places and in schools, where it can still make a real difference.”

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. And if our focus is keeping kids in schools as much as possible, this may result in more disruption to education. I worry the decision has not been made for the right reasons.”

The changes apply only to England. Covid restrictions, as part of health policy, are a devolved matter.

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