Workers have flocked back to the office today as the government scrapped its work from home guidance, with Omicron now in retreat across the country.
 
In England, face masks in classrooms are no longer a legal requirement as of today – a move which teaching unions have branded premature. But Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has insisted it is appropriate since face coverings make it “harder to teach children.”
 
The rest of Plan B’s Covid restrictions will be lifted in a week’s time, the PM confirmed yesterday, meaning that as of 26 January, face masks won’t be required by law in any setting in England and Covid passes for large events will be ditched. 
 
The loosening of rules comes as ONS figures reveal that the number of people in England with coronavirus fell to one in 20 in the week ending 15 January, down from one in 15 the week before. 
 
Hospitalisations – which peaked at half of last January’s level – appear to be falling across the country. And the rise in Omicron cases among the elderly did not lead to the anticipated growth in hospitalisations within this cohort, minutes from a recent SAGE meeting have shown.
 
As infections drop, NHS staff absences are falling too in every region of England. Just under 30,000 NHS staff in hospital trusts across the country were self-isolating from the virus on 16 January, down 26 per cent on the 40,031 self-isolating the week before.
 
This decline is no doubt partly driven by over 90 per cent of over-50s coming forward for their boosters – the highest proportion of any country in Europe. 
 
The rationale for lifting Plan B is clear – but what comes next? 
 
Javid has pledged that the government will be “setting out a long-term plan for living with Covid-19 this spring.”
 
This post-pandemic approach for co-existing with the virus in the months and years to come will rely in large part on medical advances – whether that’s further investment in vaccines or preventative drugs and treatments. We‘re also likely to see a general scaling back of testing, paired with targeted testing to deal with concentrated outbreaks.
 
Crucially, the government must also decide when to axe existing self-isolation rules, which are set to expire on 24 March. Boris Johnson told the Commons on Wednesday that he did not expect to renew them after this date.
 
But the PM also hinted yesterday that he could bring this date forward. Doing so would help to reduce staff absences, and two more months of self-isolation could cause big disruption given that the termination of Plan B will mean increased mixing.
 
Another big decision for ministers will be whether or not to press ahead with controversial plans to make Covid jabs mandatory for NHS staff in April – a mandate that currently only applies to care home staff
 
Omicron is proving to be milder, recognition is growing that the virus will become endemic as opposed to ever being eradicated and staff shortages are fast becoming one of biggest remaining pandemic dangers. Against this backdrop, can a policy – resulting in the loss of more NHS staff – still be justified?