Betting Omicron has peaked, England set to lift COVID rules - REUTERS
- PM Johnson set to announce easing of Plan B rules
- PM buffeted by lockdown party furore
- England seeks to live with the virus, in contrast to others
LONDON, Jan 19 (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce the end of most COVID-19 measures introduced to curb the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in England as he looks to live with the virus after an apparent peak in cases.
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.
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."
Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Angus MacSwan