England scraps Covid Plan B: travel, isolation rules to go in March?

Should I still wear a mask as millions of workers are now free to return to offices?

Commuters at Waterloo underground station in London on Thursday after the government lifted its working from home advice. PA

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People in England have been handed back their freedoms as the government attempts to return society to normality, in line with its “learn to live with Covid” message. Officials are getting ready to scrap almost all Covid-related regulations within weeks.

What other changes are next?

From March 24 people who test positive for the coronavirus will no longer be legally required to self-isolate.

The prime minister hopes to bring the date forward if the data allows.

Asked about the requirement, Health Secretary Sajid Javid left the door open for it to be extended beyond March.

“We will decide as we get closer to March based on the data at the time,” he told Sky News.

Travel rules may also be eased in the coming weeks, which would provide the industry with a much-needed boost.

Under the existing regime, unvaccinated travellers are required to isolate for 10 days after arriving in England and to take tests on days two and eight.

Under changes announced earlier this month, vaccinated travellers are not required to self-isolate unless they test positive for the virus. Before travelling to England they have to show proof of a pre-booked test to be taken upon arrival. This can be a PCR test or a cheaper lateral flow one.

The travel industry has called on politicians to scrap all testing rules, warning the sector still has a long way to go before returning to pre-pandemic numbers.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled sweeping changes, including the lifting of the Plan B restrictions, less than two months after Mr Johnson ordered tighter curbs to stem the rapid spread of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

What changes have been put into immediate effect?

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson said “from now on the government is no longer asking people to work from home”. He said employees and their managers should discuss ways to transition back into the workplace.

The announcement was expected to immediately increase the number of people heading to offices and other workplaces, with more expected to follow suit in the coming days.

Commuters on London Bridge make their way into offices during the morning rush hour on Thursday. PA

The move will lead to an increase in revenue for many hospitality venues including cafes which had complained that the government’s working from home mandate had hit them badly after lockdowns.

Face masks are no longer a requirement for pupils and teachers in secondary school classrooms.

What changes are due to come in?

From Thursday January 27 the Plan B rules will expire and, in light of the government’s decision not to extend the measures, people will be able to enjoy more social freedoms.

Covid-19 passes will no longer be mandatory in nightclubs and crowded venues. The decision on whether to continue with the scheme or stop asking patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative test will lie with managers.

On the same day, changes to the wearing of face masks in public settings will also take effect. People will no longer be required to wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, salons and places of worship.

Restrictions on visitors to care homes will come to an end.

The Department for Education will remove national guidance on the use of face coverings in communal areas for pupils in Year 7 and above. Masks could still be required where there are outbreaks, but only if Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi approves a request.

Mr Johnson said ministers would continue to advise people to wear masks in crowded places, but it would no longer be a requirement to do so.

“In the country at large we will continue to suggest the use of face coverings in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when you come into contact with people you don't normally meet — but we will trust the judgment of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one.”

Commuters, most wearing face coverings to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, travel on a Transport for London (TfL) Victoria Line underground tube train carriage towards central London on January 5, 2022.  - British hospitals have switched to a "war footing" due to staff shortages caused by a wave of Omicron infections, the government said Tuesday, as the country's daily Covid caseload breached 200,000 for the first time.  (Photo by Tolga Akmen  /  AFP)

What has the reaction been?

The NHS Confederation has warned the newfound freedoms will inevitably cause Covid case numbers to rise.

Matthew Trainer, chief executive of Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, said the “data is heading in the right direction” but said bosses are “always conscience of the risks” of the easing of rules.

He said staff have largely welcomed the changes and would continue to take all necessary precautions to protect patients from the virus.

“The government has got to balance risks between the NHS and the broader social and economic impact of this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I spoke to some of our staff yesterday afternoon and, do you know what, a lot of them haven’t seen their family for a couple of years. We’ve got quite a few of overseas staff in our trust — one of the great strengths of our trust — and actually people are thinking, well we’ve got to balance this off at some point about the stuff that really matters in life.

“So there’s a recognition that this is kind of a difficult balancing act.”

Updated: January 21, 2022, 10:32 AM