When will Plan B be reviewed? Everything we know so far

Boris Johnson has reintroduced social restrictions in response to spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 but steered clear of a tighter clampdown

Joe Sommerlad,Lamiat Sabin
Wednesday 19 January 2022 12:45
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No new Covid restrictions needed at present, says Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson’s “Plan B” measures are currently in force in England in the hope of limiting the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 this winter.

At his Downing Street press conferences prior to Christmas, the prime minister warned that the new strain is “growing much faster” than the dominant Delta variant and encouraged the British public to get a booster vaccine as a matter of urgency to tackle waning immunity and keep infections low over the festive period.

Covid infection rates duly soared over the New Year, hitting a pandemic high of 218,724 according to the UK Health Security Agency, but have since begun to fall away, providing fresh grounds for optimism.

What are the Plan B rules?

Mandatory mask-wearing is in place on public transport, in shops, cinemas, theatres and places of worship but face coverings are not currently mandatory in pubs and restaurants.

Exceptions to the mask rule can be made when eating, drinking, exercising or singing, Mr Johnson has said.

Guidance to work from home where possible has also been in place since Monday 13 December.

The NHS Covid Pass, which can be obtained via the NHS smartphone app by having two vaccines or a negative lateral flow test, is now needed for entry to nightclubs and other large venues as of Wednesday 15 December.

These health certificates are also required for access to unseated indoor venues with more than 500 attendees and outside where there are more than 4,000 people.

Mr Johnson indicated that the passes process will evolve as the Omicron situation changes, however, commenting: “We will keep this under review as the boosters roll out.”

How long will Plan B rules be in place?

The government has said that its latest measures– which were originally drawn up in September – will be reviewed before 26 January 2022.

At the time of writing - Wednesday 19 January - Mr Johnson is being tipped to give a press conference announcing the repeal of restrictions imminently.

Have the Plan B rules been approved?

Yes. MPs voted in favour on the measures in the House of Commons on Tuesday 14 December.

Almost 100 Tory rebels did break ranks to oppose the government on the Covid Pass, which some consider an infringement of civil liberties, but the rules passed anyway thanks largely to support from Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which voted broadly in favour after signalling it considered the moves to be in the national interest.

How prevalent is the Omicron variant?

The UK confirmed the first death from the new variant globally on Monday 13 December and has seen many more fatalities since.

London was particularly hard hit by the new strain before the New Year, prompting city mayor Sadiq Khan to declare a major incident.

NHS England meanwhile announced that it has returned to its highest level of emergency preparedness, level four national incident, meaning that its response to Omicron will be coordinated as a national effort rather than led by individual trusts.

At least 24 NHS hospital trusts subsequently declared “critical incidents” caused by staff shortages as the crisis developed before the infection rate mercifully began to wane, no doubt in part thanks to the role played by the booster rollout.

Has Plan B slowed the spread of Omicron?

Scientists advising the government said again and again that stronger measures were needed to slow down the spread of the variant but met with political opposition from senior Cabinet members concerned about doing further damage to the economy and alienating support.

Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said in December that “case numbers of Omicron are doubling at least every three days, maybe even every two days at the moment, so it’s accelerating very fast”.

He warned that lockdowns were a possibility and cannot be ruled out but that the working from home guidance could help to slow the spread.

“There is a rationale, just epidemiologically, to try and slow this down, to buy us more time principally to get boosters into people’s arms, because we do think people who are boosted will have the best level of protection possible, but also to buy us more time to really better characterise the threat,” he said.

However, Mr Johnson bullishly stuck to his guns and the gamble now appears to have paid off, although case numbers are still above 90,000 per day and it seems nothing can ever be ruled out in this pandemic.

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