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Scientists and health leaders warn of ‘real danger’ after England’s Covid restrictions end

Scientists and healthcare leaders have warned that workers returning to the office en masse and the end of mandatory mask-wearing in England risked prompting a second surge in the Omicron coronavirus variant, potentially heaping pressure on the health service.

The work from home order and mask mandate in secondary schools was lifted on Thursday, with vaccine passports for large events and the requirement for face coverings on public transport and in shops scheduled to end on January 26, following the announcement by prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday.

Despite a fall in infections and pressure on hospitals in recent weeks, the government’s SPI-M modelling group said in a consensus statement released on Thursday that “it is just as likely that hospital admissions will remain at their current level or start to increase again, as it is that they will decrease rapidly”.

Figures from Transport for London suggest workers are already returning to the office. Nearly 1.1m entry and exit Oyster or contactless card taps were recorded by 10am on Thursday on the Underground, up 8 per cent from the same time a week earlier.

Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, said there was a “real danger” of “another surge” as behavioural caution waned and companies coaxed employees back to offices. “A lot of people thinking Omicron is just a cold could massively scupper attempts to maintain any sense of caution among people,” she added.

Health leaders said a second spike could trouble the already stretched NHS. Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the healthcare sector, said: “As the Plan B restrictions are lifted, healthcare leaders are warning of their real concerns that we will see more people get ill with this virus, which will continue to place extra strain on the health service.”

The fall in Covid-19 cases has slowed slightly in recent days, with 95,974 cases recorded across England on Thursday, down just 2 per cent from the same day last week.

The seven-day average of cases among children has risen by 26 per cent in the last four days, while the week-on-week decline among people aged 35-59 — their parents’ cohort — has slowed from 45 to 27 per cent. Meanwhile, weekly hospitalisations are down 11 per cent to 12,537 Covid-related admissions in the week to January 18.

Official data show 94 per cent of adult general and acute beds were occupied in the week ending January 18, up from 90 per cent in the same week last year. Some 68,871 NHS staff absences were recorded on January 16, down from an Omicron peak of 94,111 in early January, but still up on the start of December. Around 40 per cent of absences were due to Covid-19 illness or self-isolation.

However, Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who co-chairs the SPI-M modelling group, said the “considerable amount of immunity in the population” from boosters and prior infection would likely keep admissions “relatively low” if there were “a jump in cases”.

Earlier on Thursday, UK health secretary Sajid Javid defended the relaxation of restrictions, particularly ending mask-wearing in secondary schools.

“The British people have responded very positively, very sensibly throughout this pandemic and I think that’s what we’ll continue to see,” he told the BBC.

However, he said he would continue to wear a face mask in certain public and enclosed places after the mask mandate ends next week.

But Christina Pagel, a professor and member of the Independent Sage group of science advisers, said: “We should absolutely not be removing requirements for face coverings, especially not in schools.”

She added that the prime minister was dropping restrictions to “appease” the rightwing of his party “at the cost of the population’s health”.


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