Is axing Covid-19 restrictions a ‘route to normality’ or ‘unhealthy gamble’?

Health secretary heralds major ‘milestone’ in pandemic but critics point to political motives

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Justin Tallis / Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has said the UK can “start to see the light at the end of the tunnel” as regulations to work from home and wear face masks in schools were dropped this week.

The UK is on “a route map back to normality”, said The Sun. The prime minister announced the end to Plan B coronavirus restrictions in the Commons on Wednesday, with rules around wearing masks in communal spaces and Covid passports set to be scrapped from next week.

The news “was greeted by cheers from Tory backbenchers” in the Commons on Wednesday, said The Times. Keir Starmer said that Labour “does not want to see restrictions in place any longer than necessary”, adding that the party would back the move “as long as the science says it is safe”.

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‘Important milestone’

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference this week, Sajid Javid described the news as an “important milestone”, and said that England was entering a “new chapter” of the pandemic.

“But it’s not the end of the road and we shouldn’t see this as the finish line because we cannot eradicate the virus and its future variants,” the health secretary continued. “Instead we must learn to live with Covid in the same way we have to live with flu,” the Independent reported.

A long-term strategy would follow this spring, and “one or two really big things” – including vaccination against the virus and testing – would likely remain in place “for a while”, he said.

“There is no question that an easing of restrictions was justified,” said The Times. The Omicron wave has “proved less deadly than feared and is already receding”. Around 83% of the population aged 12 and over have received two vaccine doses, and 64% have received their boosters too.

The lifting of restrictions is a “gamble”, said Sky News’ science correspondent Thomas Moore. The World Health Organization has urged countries not to rely on jabs alone “to keep Covid in check”, and relaxing the rules “looks like another roll of the dice”.

“Immunity might be good enough for the next few weeks to hold back the virus”, and indeed they gambled before Christmas “when infections were surging… and hospitals were under extreme pressure”, said Moore. “The government might be right,” he said.

‘More of a political decision’

The announcement has “prompted concern from teaching and health unions, and from NHS and public health representatives”, said The Guardian. The British Medical Association’s council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said that the move “risks creating a false sense of security when the levels of infection and illness remain high, and the NHS is still under crippling pressure”.

He said the decision was “not guided by the data”, and that the prime minister’s plans to end self-isolation rules in the coming months were “premature”.

An unnamed director of public health told The Guardian: “This feels like more of a political decision than a decision based on the evidence and the science, and it could be quite London-centric”.

There is “no question” that the government had “political considerations” in mind when deciding to drop restrictions “so quickly”, said The Times. “There is no good public health justification” for calling an end to wearing face masks in public places, a rule that some head teachers have already said they will keep in place.

It’s “unlikely that Mr Johnson could have maintained plan B restrictions even if he tried”, the newspaper continued. With the prime minister’s “leadership hanging by a thread”, none of the potential candidates to succeed Johnson “would have dared incur the wrath of backbenchers by proposing the continued mandating of face masks”.

Johnson is taking an “unhealthy gamble”, said The Times. Whether it succeeds in “shoring up his political position or, more importantly, protecting Britain from future Covid waves, remains to be seen”.

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