Businesses hailed the government’s decision to lift most coronavirus restrictions in England from next week as a welcome boost to city centres and consumer confidence, despite healthcare leaders warning that the NHS was still grappling with the Omicron wave.
Boris Johnson confirmed to the House of Commons on Wednesday that England’s Plan B measures, which include compulsory mask wearing in public places, a work from home order and vaccine passports for large venues, would lapse after January 26.
The UK prime minister, who is under pressure to resign over claims he flouted coronavirus rules during lockdowns, added that he would like to speed up the end to self-isolation edicts “were the data to allow” it. The requirements are due to expire on March 24.
Johnson also announced that from Thursday the government would no longer require face masks in classrooms.
Sajid Javid, UK health secretary, said that by spring the government would “set out how we are going to live with Covid”, adding: “We are going to have to find a way to remove almost all of these restrictions and get life completely back to normal.”
The hospitality and retail sector — hit hard by a fall in custom over the festive period — welcomed the imminent lifting of restrictions.
Michael Kill, chief executive of Night Time Industries Association, said nightclubs and bars would be “finally able to plan for the future with some level of certainty and without debilitating restrictions”.
Kate Nicholls, head of UKHospitality, said it was a “hugely welcome step to boost consumer and business confidence and allow a more rapid return to recovery”.
Several businesses leaders said they would ask staff to start returning to the office — at least part-time — from the end of the month.
“We’re expecting a faster bounce back now — people know the drill — and this is great news for small businesses and city centres that rely on office workers,” said Kevin Ellis, chair and senior partner at PwC. He added that it had taken two months to get back to 80 per cent capacity in the office after the last lockdown restrictions were lifted in the summer.
The decision to end Plan B, which was activated in early December in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, came as the latest data confirmed England had passed the peak of infections and hospital pressures.
An estimated 3.4m people in the UK had coronavirus in the week to January 15, according to the Office for National Statistics infection survey, down from the peak of 4.3m infections recorded in the seven days to January 6. In England, infection rates fell from one in 15 to one in 20.
But Matthew Taylor, chief executive of NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, warned that Covid-19 had “not magically disappeared”. He said the NHS was still “under significant pressure” from Covid-related hospitalisations, staff sickness and the effort to tackle the treatment backlog.
“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,” said Taylor.
108,069 Covid cases were recorded on Wednesday, a fall of 17 per cent from the same day last week, and Covid hospital admissions are falling across the UK.
Admissions have dropped 10 per cent from the early January peak across England, with the seven-day average falling from 2,041 two weeks ago to 1,839 for the week ending January 17.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents healthcare leaders, warned that the surge was not over as some hospital trusts have yet to reach their peak.
“We have to keep everything on the table . . . if we see cases start to pick up again,” said John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But he added he did not expect a “dramatic bounce back” in social mixing and transmission as people’s own actions had helped keep the Omicron wave under control.