Boris Johnson has told civil servants to get back to their desks and ‘show the lead’ after work from home guidance was axed.
The Prime Minister yesterday announced plans to scrap all Covid restrictions by the spring as the Omicron wave continued to recede, with Covid cases, deaths and hospitalisations all down on last week.
While measures such as Covid passports and compulsory face masks are to be dropped from next Thursday, staff are being encouraged back to offices and other workplaces immediately.
Within minutes of his announcement, civil servants were told via a Cabinet Office email that they should being to return to work, with other departments expected to communicate similar memos today.
There are no plans for targets, however, on how many staff are back at desks and how many days a week they are expected to be in the office.
The PM insisted the move was vital for younger workers in particular, who would struggle to build up the necessary skills, experience and networks from home.
Mr Johnson said that ‘across Whitehall, we need to show a lead and make sure that we get back to work, everybody gets back to work’.
However, some unions expressed concern, including the FDA, which represents civil service workers.
Its head, Dave Penman, told the Times: ‘[Johnson] fails to recognise the innovation and flexibility shown by the civil service in adapting to the changing guidance, but the prime minister also talks about a return to work when the civil service has been working flat out.
‘The idea that forcing civil servants back into the office will somehow show a lead to the rest of the economy is frankly insulting to all those businesses who have made decisions that enhance their efficiency and profitability.’
The PM also yesterday laid out his intentions to remove all remaining Covid laws by March 24, including basic measures like mandatory self-isolation for positive cases and the requirement to give your address to NHS Test and Trace if you have Covid.
The shock announcement came as the UK recorded 108,069 new positive Covid tests, down 16.6 per cent on last Wednesday’s 129,587 and the 14th day in a row that cases have been down week-on-week.
Fatalities were down 9.8 per cent, with 359 deaths recorded today, ad hospitalisations fell 14.5 per cent to 1,752 on Saturday, the latest date data is available for.
While Mr Johnson — who is currently facing enormous pressure to resign over a number of parties in No10 during the brutal first lockdown of 2020 — unveiled the Covid-loosening plans to MPs in the Commons today, it was Health Secretary Sajid Javid who was sent to announce them to the public at a press conference tonight and fend of questions from journalists about his boss’ latest scandal.
Speaking at the podium in Downing Street, Mr Javid declared ‘Omicron is in retreat’ as he hailed the decision to lift Plan B as the start of the ‘next chapter’ in the pandemic.
He said the Government was fulfilling its promise to ‘open up the country as soon as the data supports it’ as he pointed to rapidly collapsing Covid cases and plateauing hospital rates.
Mr Javid added: ‘This plan has worked and the data shows that Omicron is in retreat.’
He described the relaxation of measures as a ‘major milestone’, adding: ‘But it’s not the end of the road and we shouldn’t see this as the finish line because we cannot eradicate this virus and its future variants.
‘Instead we must learn to live with Covid in the same way we have to live with flu. And we will be setting out our long-term plan for living with Covid this spring.’
In other developments:
- Documents sent between the UK’s health agencies revealed free Covid lateral flow tests will be scrapped from July under the Government’s virus ‘exit strategy’;
- Britain’s gold-standard infection study showed Covid cases plummeted by a fifth in England last week in more confirmation that Omicron is on its way out;
- A study found children who develop a rare Kawasaki-like inflammatory syndrome after catching Covid recover within three months;
- Research showed Covid patients who only experience mild illness can still experience ‘brain fog’ that lasts for up to nine months;
- A study showed claimed a £15 blood-thinning drug could help Covid patients and prevent lung damage.
Boris Johnson has told civil servants to get back to their desks and ‘show the lead’ after work from home guidance was axed
A deserted Whitehall last year, amid the government’s work from home guidance, which has since been lifted after the PM’s announcement
Health Secretary Sajid Javid who was sent to announce the new rule changes to the public at a press conference tonight and fend of questions from journalists about his boss’ latest scandal
Mr Javid said that, starting with immediate effect, No10’s work from home guidance will no longer apply, and face masks will no longer be required in school classrooms in England from tomorrow. Covid passes and compulsory face masks will be axed from next Thursday.
The Health Secretary said that testing, vaccines and antivirals will be the ‘cornerstone of our future defences’ when ‘almost all’ restrictions end.
He claimed that the re-opening of the country now when many nations in Europe are still living with draconian lockdown measures was a vindication of the PM’s response to Omicron.
Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, Mr Javid denied Mr Johnson ‘just got lucky’ when he chose not to impose further restrictions over Christmas.
‘The central decision that he made which was to absolutely focus on boosters has been vindicated,’ he said. ‘That is the main reason that we are where we are today because the Prime Minister made those decisions.’
Free lateral flow Covid tests to be scrapped by JULY
Free Covid lateral flow tests will be scrapped from July under the Government’s virus ‘exit strategy’, according to documents sent between the UK’s health agencies.
Ministers have urged Britons to take the swabs regularly in an attempt to quell the spread of Omicron — but only key workers will be able to access free tests if No10’s mooted plan to ‘ramp down the Universal Testing Offer’ gets signed off.
Instead, officials say an online ordering system will be ready by the end of June to direct Britons to purchase the tests, which are said to cost the Government £30 per pack of seven.
No10 has previously said it would ‘at a later stage’ stop offering everyone the tests, which are free to order from the Government website or pick up at pharmacies. No10 has spent billions of pounds on securing the kits as part of its mass-testing strategy.
Amid record high cases at the start of the year, more than 8million lateral flows were registered over the space of one week. However, only a fraction of tests used are officially logged.
But Covid infections have been in freefall for the past fortnight. The natural fizzling out of the Omicron wave has piled pressure on Boris Johnson to unveil his pandemic ‘exit strategy’ to prepare the country for living with Covid like flu.
Discussing his future plan to ‘live with Covid’, he told the conference: ‘The way we are going to do this is we’re going to have to find a way to remove almost all of these restrictions and get life completely back to normal but with one or two really big things that I think will be there for a while.
‘That is I think probably the need to vaccinate, I can’t tell you how often that will be, but I think vaccinations will remain hugely important just as we have to have annual vaccinations protecting older people against flu.
‘I think antivirals and treatments will continue to play a big role, especially for those that might be more exposed, and I think testing, it’s great where we are today with testing and I think it will improve over time.
‘These pharmaceutical defences of the vaccines, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies, and testing, I think they will be the cornerstone of our future defences.’
Mr Johnson told MPs at lunchtime the Government will still ‘suggest’ to people to wear face coverings in certain ‘enclosed or crowded places’ but ‘we will trust the judgement of the British people’.
He also said there will ‘soon come a time when we can remove the legal requirement to self-isolate altogether’, promising the change will be made by March 24 at the latest.
Ministers are confident they can lift the final restrictions because of the increasingly positive data.
Even NHS consultants have now claimed the end of the pandemic is ‘now in sight’. Dr Richard Cree, an intensive care consultant at Middlesbrough’s James Cook University Hospital, said: ‘I am confident that the worst will soon be behind us.’
Today’s figures also show another 75,088 booster vaccine doses were dished out yesterday, taking the country’s total to 36.6million — 63.7 per cent of the over-12 population.
More than 18,000 first doses and 29,000 second doses were also dished out, meaning 90.7 per cent of people in the age group now have at least some protection against the virus.
Mr Johnson said March 24 is the date when the regulations underpinning the current five-day self-isolation period expire and the Government ‘very much expect not to renew them’.
The PM said his preference is actually to ‘seek a vote in this House to bring that date forward’.
The move on self-isolation is likely to be welcomed by business chiefs after the quarantine rules and spiking case numbers during the Omicron wave wreaked havoc with the nation’s workforce.
Mr Johnson said the Government’s scientific advisers believe that the Omicron variant ‘has now peaked nationally’ and ‘the data are showing that time and again this government got the toughest decisions right’.
The changes in England come after Scotland and Wales had already set out plans to ease their respective restrictions.
A limit on the number of people who can attend outdoor events in Scotland was removed earlier this week while table service-only rules and a three household limit on mixing will end next Monday. Scotland has not yet ditched its work from home guidance.
In Wales, the limit on the number of people who can attend outdoor events will be lifted from Friday this week.
The rule of six, table service and 2m social distancing for hospitality will then be axed from January 28.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson today announced that he is lifting Plan B Covid curbs in England
Even mild cases of Covid can lead to ‘brain fog’ that lasts for up to NINE MONTHS, study claims
Covid patients who only experience mild illness can still experience ‘brain fog’ that lasts for up to nine months.
Researchers already knew survivors struck down by long Covid can suffer attention and memory difficulties.
But a new study, by Oxford University academics, spotted similar effects in people without any lasting symptoms of the virus.
The study, published in the journal Brain Communications, analysed 135 people who were invited to play 12 ‘brain games’.
Forty per cent of volunteers said they had already had Covid.
Of those who had been infected, seven had severe symptoms. Two confessed to experiencing long Covid.
The rest said they had not suffered the other issues associated with long Covid — including fatigue, shortness of breath and aches and pains.
Their tests results were then compared against those of a control group, who were considered to be of a similar state.
Experts said the Covid group performed well in short-term working memory and planning.
But they scored significantly worse in their memory of past events and in their ability to sustain attention over time.
Mr Johnson rolled out his Plan B curbs across England in December to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.
The regulations underpinning the Plan B restrictions are due to expire on January 26 and the Government committed to reviewing them ahead of that date.
Mr Johnson met with his Cabinet this morning to hammer out the way forward.
Delivering a statement to MPs in the House of Commons this afternoon, Mr Johnson said that because of the booster jab campaign and the public adhering to Plan B rules ‘we can return to Plan A in England and allow Plan B regulations to expire’.
He said: ‘As a result, from the start of Thursday next week mandatory certification will end.
‘Organisations can, of course, choose to use the NHS Covid Pass voluntarily but we will end the compulsory use of Covid status certification in England.
‘From now, the Government is no longer asking people to work from home and people should now speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office.
‘And having looked at the data carefully, the Cabinet concluded that once regulations lapse, the government will no longer mandate the wearing of face masks anywhere.
‘Mr Speaker, from tomorrow, we will no longer require face masks in classrooms, and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas.
‘In the country at large, we will continue to suggest the use of face coverings in enclosed or crowded places, particularly where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet.
‘But we will trust the judgement of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one.’
Mr Johnson said the current requirement for people to self-isolate for five full days after a positive Covid test will remain in place.
But he told MPs: ‘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.
Calls grow to ditch compulsory Covid jabs law for NHS staff as 80,000 face the sack
Ministers are under pressure from Tory MPs to scrap a law requiring all NHS staff to have a Covid jab as bosses prepare to start sacking 80,000 in a fortnight.
All frontline workers must have had two doses of the vaccine by April 1, meaning the first must have been administered by February 3.
But more than 80,000 – 6 per cent of the workforce – remain unvaccinated despite repeated efforts to boost take-up.
New NHS guidance to employers says staff who have not been jabbed should start being called into formal meetings from February 4 and warned they face dismissal with the notice period ending on March 31.
But the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives have urged ministers to delay the rules, saying they could have a ‘catastrophic’ impact on the delivery of services.
And Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, yesterday urged No 10 to reconsider its approach.
He said: ‘The Government is still ploughing on, regardless of the consequences on staffing levels. It’s nonsense. Ministers must change course.’
‘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 would like to seek a vote in this House to bring that date forwards.’
Mr Johnson said that in advance of March 24 the Government will set out its ‘long-term strategy for living with Covid-19’.
The premier said this document will explain ‘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,’ he said.
‘When there are still over 16,000 people in hospital in England alone, the pandemic is not over.
‘And, Mr Speaker, make no mistake, Omicron is not a mild disease for everyone – and especially if you’re not vaccinated.’
Mr Johnson said ‘we know that around 90 per cent of people in intensive care are not boosted’ as he repeated his plea to the nation to get jabbed.
The PM also said the Government will make an announcement about easing Covid travel restrictions ‘in the next few days’.
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, welcomed the lifting of Plan B but said: ‘I hope the Prime Minister will forgive me for not being extraordinarily grateful for the withdrawal of these measures.
‘I and many colleagues on these benches didn’t think they were necessary in December but I do nonetheless welcome their removal.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer blasted the PM as he claimed he is ‘too distracted to do the job’.
Sir Keir 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.
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, welcomed the lifting of Plan B but pointed out he had always opposed the measures
‘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.’
Covid pandemic is ‘nowhere near over’ and new variants are likely to emerge, WHO warns, despite cases continuing to plummet in Britain
The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, the World Health Organization’s chief said Tuesday, cautioning against a narrative that the the Omicron variant is risk-free.
‘This pandemic is nowhere near over,’ chief of the UN health body Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.
Tedros warned against dismissing the coronavirus Omicron variant – which has spread like wildfire around the globe since it was first detected in southern Africa in November – as mild.
Omicron is much more contagious than previous strains but seems to cause less serious disease in patients.
That has triggered a debate on the virus passing from being a pandemic to becoming endemic – with the implication that the danger will have passed.
But the WHO has warned that the sheer numbers of people infected will mean many vulnerable people are still falling seriously ill and dying.
Experts have also warned that allowing Covid-19 to spread out of control dramatically increases the chance on new variants emerging.
NHS bosses said it is up to Mr Johnson when to impose and lift Covid rules but warned ‘Covid-19 has not magically disappeared’.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘While it is the job of the Prime Minister and the Government to weigh up the balance of pros and cons for lifting restrictions, this is not the time for complacency about this virus.
‘COVID-19 has not magically disappeared, and we are likely to have to learn to live alongside it for years to come. Lifting restrictions doesn’t mean a return to normality is inevitable.
‘We need to be honest with the public that a decision to lift restrictions is a trade-off. 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.’
Hospitality bosses said the lifting of Plan B represents ‘extremely good news’ for the sector.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: ‘The announcement from the Prime Minister today to remove all Plan B restrictions when they expire on 26th January is extremely good news for our pubs and brewers.
‘However, the severity of the impact these measures had on trade during the festive period and into the new year must not be underestimated.
‘It is vital the Government now lays out its plan for living with Covid as an endemic disease, this will enable the sector to plan for a strong and sustainable recovery.’
The PM had faced growing pressure from Tory figures to axe mandatory face mask rules after there were reports that they could be kept in place.
Lord Frost, the former Brexit minister who quit the Cabinet in December over the imposition of Plan B, had tweeted this morning: ‘It is good news if the Cabinet does decide this morning to lift some ‘Plan B’ restrictions.
‘But the job isn’t done if mask wearing remains in place. The evidence for masks is weak & the many downsides are persistently discounted. All Plan B measures need lifting *for good*.’
The Government’s strategy for living with Covid will see local testing centres starting to shut in the spring, according to The Times.
The Treasury believes the estimated £10billion a year cost of the testing operation is not sustainable and wants it to be reduced.
A Government source told The Times: ‘The wind-down will be quite swift and will mean fewer test centres because we don’t need all of the sites.’
It is thought the long-term coronavirus strategy could be unveiled by the Government by the end of February.
Official Government data showed there were a further 94,432 Covid cases recorded in the UK yesterday while a further 438 people had died within 28 days of testing positive.
A total of 19,450 people were in hospital in the UK with Covid-19 as of January 17.
This is down two per cent week-on-week – though the total had risen slightly in the most recent two days.
During the second wave of coronavirus, the number of hospital patients peaked at 39,254 on January 18, 2021.
There were 1,892 Covid-19 hospital admissions on January 14, the latest UK-wide figure available, down five per cent week-on-week.
Admissions during the second wave peaked at 4,583 on January 12 2021.
Lifting the Plan B restrictions is part of a Downing Street policy blitz, dubbed ‘Operation Red Meat’, designed to stabilise the PM’s premiership after the Partygate row.
Other crowd-pleasing policies have already been announced, including bringing in the military to tackle the migrant Channel crossings crisis and freezing the BBC licence fee for two years.
The lifting of Plan B rules came as Scotland’s national clinical director said Omicron is ‘definitely’ on a ‘downward slope’, but urged caution over thinking the pandemic is in its final stages.
Asked if we are in the ‘endgame’, Professor Jason Leitch told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think we’re in the endgame of Omicron. I’m afraid that’s not the answer you wanted.
‘Nobody knows if we’re in the endgame of the whole pandemic. And anybody who does, I’m afraid it’s hope rather than reality.
‘I hope we’re in the endgame, and the WHO are telling us still to be cautious – don’t drop your guard for surveillance of other variants that might come into your country or you might generate yourself.
‘But we’re definitely in a downward slope of Omicron, which is terrific news.’
So what is changing… and when will it happen? Your guide to the post-curb rules as Boris Johnson announces the end of Covid Plan B restrictions
WORKING FROM HOME
The Prime Minister said the Government is no longer asking people to work from home. He called on people to speak to their employers about arrangements for returning to the office.
MASKS IN SCHOOLS
From today, secondary school pupils will not have to wear face coverings in classrooms.
The requirement to wear masks in corridors and other communal areas will end next Thursday, January 27.
Face masks in schools will no longer be required from next Thursday
FROM NEXT THURSDAY
MASKS IN PUBLIC PLACES
From next Thursday, the Government will no longer legally mandate the wearing of face coverings in shops and on public transport.
But they will continue to suggest masks should be worn in enclosed and crowded places where people could come into contact with those they do not normally meet.
The Prime Minister said this meant the Government will ‘trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one’.
Proof of vaccination or a recent negative test will no longer be needed to enter nightclubs and large venues from next Thursday.
But businesses will still be free to use the NHS Covid Pass if they want.
BY THE END OF THE MONTH
An announcement is expected soon on scrapping the requirement for fully vaccinated travellers to take a Covid test on returning to England.
No 10 said the rules will be reviewed by the end of January.
Plans to ease restrictions on care home visits will be announced in the next few days. At present, care homes must impose severe restrictions on visitors for up to 28 days if there has been a Covid outbreak affecting two or more residents.
BY MARCH AT THE LATEST
Boris Johnson said he ‘very much expects’ not to renew the legal requirement to self-isolate with Covid when the rules lapse on March 24.
He said this could happen even earlier, if the data allows.
The legal requirement will be replaced with guidance that urges people with the virus to be careful and considerate of others.
Free Covid lateral flow tests look set to be scrapped by July.
People will be pointed towards an online ordering system to purchase the tests, which cost £30 for a pack of seven.