By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of COVID-19 measures including mandatory face masks in England as he looks to live with the virus after a peak in cases caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Johnson's light touch approach to dealing with Omicron saw him introduce work-at-home advice and vaccine passes as well as more mask-wearing on Dec. 8, although he stopped short of more onerous restrictions seen globally.
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 pledge 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.
"Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns... but this government took a different path," Johnson told lawmakers, saying the government had got the toughest decisions right and that numbers going into intensive care were falling.
"Our scientists believe it is likely that the Omicron wave has now peaked nationally... because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the Plan B measures, we can return to Plan A."
Johnson said none of the so-called Plan B measures would remain in England when they lapse on Jan. 26, as face masks would not be legally enforced anywhere and COVID passes would not be mandatory.
The government said it would also no longer ask people to work from home, effective immediately.
Johnson cited official figures that showed infection prevalence levels falling from a record high.
But scientists warned that cases could still turn higher again if people's behaviour returned to normal quickly.
"There's no guarantee that the levels are going to continue to fall as they are at the moment," University of Warwick virologist Lawrence Young told Reuters, who said he favoured a more gradual approach given that cases are still high.
"I just don't think we've got any room for complacency at the moment, but I do understand the economic imperative. People want to get back to normal."
PANDEMIC 'NOT OVER'
Johnson has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic overall, and Britain has reported 152,872 deaths, the seventh highest total globally. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed their own anti-coronavirus measures, generally with tougher restrictions, but have also begun to ease them.
Johnson hopes to reset his agenda following furore over the lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to remove him https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/uk-pm-johnson-faces-plot-trigger-leadership-challenge-2022-01-19.
The lifting of Plan B measures, along with the navigation of Omicron without resorting to a stringent lockdown, could help Johnson appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own caucus amid the party unrest.
Johnson said if data supported it, he may end the legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive before the regulation lapses in March.
"But to make that possible, we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter," he said, warning of continued pressure on hospitals.
"The pandemic is not over."
Susan Hopkins, the Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, said she expected cases would continue to fall, but it would not be linear.
"We believe that overall, we will continue to see declines in cases. That may plateau at some points as the infection is in various different populations," she said at a news conference.
"People's behaviour and how they react to the removal of Plan B will determine how fast infection can spread in the population."
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill and William James; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Angus MacSwan and Toby Chopra)