Betting omicron has peaked, England set to lift COVID rules

Britain was the first country to limit
international travel over the omicron variant, raising alarm bells about its
mutations, and in December introduced work at home advice, more mask-wearing
and vaccine passes to slow its spread.

But while cases soared to record highs,
hospitalisations and deaths have not risen by the same extent, in part due to
Britain’s booster rollout and the variant’s lesser severity.

Johnson’s approach to avoid lockdowns and live
with the virus contrasts with a zero tolerance approach to COVID-19 in China
and Hong Kong, and tougher restrictions in many other European countries.

He will hope his approach has been vindicated
as health minister Sajid Javid said on Tuesday Britain had likely already
reached the peak in both cases and hospitalisations.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll be
able to substantially reduce measures next week,” Javid said in
parliament, referring to when the so-called Plan B measures are formally due
for review.

Johnson has faced criticism for his handling
of the pandemic overall, and Britain has reported 152,513 deaths, the seventh
highest total globally. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed
their own anti-coronavirus measures, generally with tougher restrictions.

He will address parliament on Wednesday on
next steps for Plan B and hopes to reset his agenda following furore over the
lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to
remove him.

Johnson admitted he attended a party in the
garden of his Downing Street office and residence in May 2020 while social
mixing was banned.

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The lifting of Plan B measures, along with
Johnson’s navigation of Omicron without resorting to stringent lockdown, could
help him appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own party amid the
party unrest.

“Decisions on the next steps remain
finely balanced,” a government spokesperson said.

“The Omicron variant continues to pose a
significant threat and the pandemic is not over. Infections remain high but the
latest data is encouraging, with cases beginning to fall.”

Javid said that a third of Britain’s 15
million cases had been reported since the onset of Omicron. By contrast,
Britain has reported 5% of its COVID deaths since Omicron was identified in
late November.

“The idea was by really trying to put a
lot of impetus on the booster programme, it would be possible ride it out
without the most coercive methods,” Professor Francois Balloux of
University College London’s Genetics Institute, told Reuters.

“In terms of morbidity and mortality, I
think it could be seen as probably the right decision.”

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