LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce that Covid rules in England will be eased when he makes a statement on the government’s “Plan B” strategy on Wednesday. This comes as omicron cases surge in the rest of Europe.
Johnson, who is under mounting political pressure as a scandal surrounding government staff “parties” and gatherings during lockdown rumbles on, will go through the latest Covid data on Wednesday morning with his ministers before making a statement to lawmakers this afternoon, a statement from Downing Street said.
Plan B measures, implemented in December as the omicron Covid variant surged in the U.K., mean that face masks are compulsory in most indoor public settings such as public transport, shops, theaters and cinemas, and that people are advised to work from home if possible.
High school pupils have to wear masks in classrooms as part of the strategy to reduce the spread of the highly infectious variant, and Covid passes — which show whether a person is fully vaccinated or has a recent negative test — are required for larger venues.
Since the measures were introduced, the U.K. has embarked on a massive booster vaccination campaign and has seen the number of omicron cases fall. Booster shots restore much of the Covid vaccine protection lost owing to waning immunity, and against the more transmissible variant, which has undermined Covid shots more than its predecessor, the delta strain.
At the peak of the omicron wave at the start of 2022, the U.K. was recording over 200,000 new Covid infections a day. It reported 94,432 new cases on Tuesday.
“Decisions on the next steps remain finely balanced,” a U.K. government spokesperson noted on Tuesday.
“Plan B was implemented in December to slow the rapid spread of the extremely transmissible omicron variant, and get more jabs in arms,” the spokesperson said, noting that 36 million booster shots have been administered across the U.K.
However, the spokesperson added that the omicron variant “continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over. Infections remain high but the latest data is encouraging, with cases beginning to fall.”
Virologists have widely predicted that the rise and fall of omicron cases should be shorter and sharper than with previous variants because of its heightened transmissibility. While more easily spread, however, the variant has so far appeared to cause less severe illness, so a surge in hospitalizations and deaths has not followed the rise in cases.
On Tuesday, the Guardian newspaper reported that the British government could be set to announce that all Covid restrictions could end in March, two years after the U.K. went into its first lockdown in 2020, as the government pursues its plan for people to “learn to live with the virus.”
There are early signs and hopes that the omicron wave has peaked in some U.S. states too, although the World Health Organization warned on Wednesday that the pandemic will not end as the omicron variant subsides in some countries, warning that the high levels of infection around the world will likely lead to new variants as the virus mutates.
Europe’s omicron meltdown
While England is looking to ease measures, such a strategy is unlikely to be implemented any time soon in mainland Europe, where omicron cases are spiking dramatically.
France reported 464,769 new Covid infections on Tuesday, its highest recorded number during the pandemic, while Germany on Wednesday reported more than 100,000 cases, also a record for the country.
In the Netherlands, frustration has grown at a continuing partial shutdown as Covid infections have risen despite restrictions. On Tuesday, 31,426 confirmed cases were reported, just lower than a record tally of around 42,000 cases hit at the start of the week.
Last Friday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the reopening of non-essential stores, hairdressers, beauty salons and gyms, noting that “we are taking a big step and that also means we’re taking a big risk.”
But Rutte warned that uncertainties around the omicron variant meant that bars, restaurants and cultural venues would have to remain closed until at least Jan. 25.