Boris Johnson has announced the end of all Covid measures introduced to combat the Omicron variant – compulsory mask-wearing on public transport and in shops, guidance to work from home and vaccine certificates – from next week.
The prime minister also told the Commons that the legal requirement on people with coronavirus to self-isolate would be allowed to lapse when the regulations expired on 24 March, and that date could be brought forward.
To cheers from some on the Conservative benches, Johnson announced an immediate end to the need for pupils to wear masks at secondary schools.
While Johnson’s statement will please a number of his backbenchers, it prompted concern from teaching and health unions, and from NHS and public health representatives.
Responding for Labour, Keir Starmer said he would back the change as long as it was supported by evidence, saying Johnson must “reassure the public he is acting to protect their health, not just his job”.
Updating MPs, the prime minister said Covid data was “showing that time and again this government got the toughest decisions right” and that the plan B rules imposed in December could be lifted from next Thursday, the day after a pre-existing review point.
Although it had been expected that Johnson would announce the end of work-from-home guidance and the need to show a certificate proving vaccination or a recent negative Covid test to enter some venues, the immediate lifting of mandatory mask rules will come as a surprise to some.
“From tomorrow we will no longer require face masks in classrooms and the Department for Education will shortly remove national guidance on their use in communal areas,” Johnson told the Commons.
“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.”
Replying to the statement, Starmer said Labour “does not want to see restrictions in place any longer than necessary”. The Labour leader said he would back the relaxation “as long as the science says it is safe”.
Teaching unions expressed concern about the sudden change, warning that many headteachers in England were still seeing widespread disruption to education owing to Covid.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “While the trend amongst secondary aged children is down, it is however uncertain, due to the short time schools have been back since the Christmas holidays, that this trend will continue. Such uncertainty could lead to a pronounced risk of increased disruption with children and staff having to isolate.”
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, warned that there were still nearly 20,000 Covid-19 patients in hospital “at a time when the NHS is already at full stretch and contending with the toughest winter on record”, and some regions were still seeing increased infection numbers.
Pat Cullen, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said ministers would “regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency”.
Unison, the UK’s largest health union, warned that ditching plan B “in one fell swoop” risked jeopardising progress made. Christina McAnea, the union’s general secretary, said: “Rather than allowing a free-for-all, ministers should be urging caution and encouraging continued mask-wearing on transport, in public places and in schools, where it can still make a real difference.”
A director of public health at a city in the north of England said they were also concerned at the move. “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,” they said.
“We’re seeing a reduction in cases, but they’re still incredibly high. Taking out all these measures does feel risky. And if our focus is keeping kids in schools as much as possible, this may result in more disruption to education. I worry the decision has not been made for the right reasons.”
The changes apply only to England, as Covid restrictions, as part of health policy, are a devolved matter.