Restrictions will be lifted but it’s ‘not the end of the road’ for the government

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Sajid Javid confirmed that the Government’s Plan B measures, including compulsory mask-wearing in certain places, are to be scrapped by next week while isolation rules will expire in March. Speaking at a Downing Street news conference, the Cabinet minister said the restrictions on freedom had served their purpose now that the surge in the Covid variant had passed its peak.

But he cautioned that the pandemic was “not over”, urging the public to continue to take care and be vigilant. Mr Javid said: “Today marks the start of the next chapter in this country’s fight against Covid-19. Our plan was to use the time that Plan B gave us to give ourselves extra power in our fight against Omicron. That plan has worked, and the data shows that Omicron is in retreat.

“But it’s not the end of the road and we shouldn’t see this as the finish line. The best step that we can all take is to get vaccinated. It was the jabs that have got us this far, and the jabs can keep us here too.”

Mr Javid said official figures showed infection levels were falling in England and the Government’s scientific advisers believe the Omicron wave has peaked. Earlier, Tory backbenchers cheered as Boris Johnson announced in the Commons that the restrictions will be lifted.

Ministers rubber-stamped the decision to scrap Plan B at a specially convened Cabinet meeting yesterday. In the latest move, the Government’s advice to work from home where possible was dropped yesterday and school children will no longer have to wear face masks during lessons from today.

And from next Thursday, people at venues and events will no longer be required to use the NHS Covid Pass. Face coverings will no longer required by law in any setting although local public health directors are able to make recommendations in their areas.

The legal requirement for people who test positive for Covid to isolate will expire on March 24. Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor for the UK Health Security Agency, said: “The recent decline in community case rates and individuals requiring hospitalisation is encouraging and it’s thanks to the public, who have taken up vaccination and followed the Plan B measures closely, that we’ve got to this point.

“However we should not be complacent. The pandemic is not over yet and we will need to remain cautious to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in our communities.

“I encourage everyone to get the vaccine as soon as they can, to continue testing regularly with LFDs [lateral flow devices], particularly before periods of high risk and before seeing anyone who is vulnerable – and to take a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test if they have symptoms.”

In the Commons, the Prime Minister told MPs: “While we must continue to remain cautious, the data are showing that time and again this Government got the toughest decisions right.”

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He promised to “trust the judgment of the British people” on wearing face masks and said the Government will “no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one”. Moves to further ease restrictions on visits to care homes will be set out within days.

He said: “We must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter. When there are still over 16,000 people in hospital in England alone, the pandemic is not over.”

He added: “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.”

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed the announcement and praised the Government’s “courage” to pre-order vaccines earlier in the pandemic. Mr Hunt, chairman of the Commons 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.”

Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, who have been critical of Covid restrictions, 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.”

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