Home » Covid Live: Face Masks And Working From Home Advice To Be Scrapped In England; Germany Reports Record Cases

Covid Live: Face Masks And Working From Home Advice To Be Scrapped In England; Germany Reports Record Cases

12:56

Mandatory face masks, Covid passports and working from home advice to be scrapped in England

Plan B measures aimed at tackling the spread of Covid are to be dropped across England, the prime minister has announced.

Boris Johnson told MPs more than 90% of over-60s across the UK had now had booster jabs to protect them, and scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked nationally.

He said the government had taken a “different path” to much of Europe and the “data are showing that, time and again, this government got the toughest decisions right”.

The restrictions, which include working from home advice, mandatory face masks in some settings and Covid passports, will be allowed to expire on 26 January.

The news comes as Covid infection levels are falling in most parts of the UK for the first time since early December.

From 27 January, the following changes will take effect in England:

  • End of mandatory Covid passes, but businesses can continue to use them if they choose to
  • It will no longer be a legal requirement to wear a face mask, including in classrooms for secondary students and on public transport, but they will still be recommended in some places, such as in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet
  • End to work from home guidance
  • Restrictions on care homes will be eased – further detail to be released

However, there will still be a legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid.

But Johnson said there will “soon be a time” when self-isolation guidance can be removed entirely. The regulations expire on 24 March, he said, adding he does not expect to renew them.

Updated

16:10

UK records another 108,069 cases and 359 deaths

The UK has recorded a further 108,069 Covid cases and 359 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, according to the latest data from the government’s coronavirus dashboard.

That is compared to 94,432 infections and 438 fatalities reported in the 24 hours prior.

15:57

The US actor John Malkovich was turned away from a luxury hotel in Venice last week after failing to present a valid Covid vaccination pass, Italian news media reported Wednesday.

Local newspaper Il Gazzettino reported that the theatre and film actor, star of “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Being John Malkovich”, was in Venice for two days of filming for US television series “Ripley”.

Because his mandatory vaccination card had expired, Malkovich was denied entry to his luxury suite at the Hotel Danieli overlooking the Grand Canal, the paper wrote.

He was instead housed in private lodgings, it said.

Contacted by phone, the hotel would not confirm reports due to privacy concerns.

Italian news agency ANSA confirmed the report, citing sources within the production.

Under Italian law, only those who show proof of full vaccination or recovery from Covid can access public spaces like hotels, restaurants, bars and other venues, as well as public transport.

15:27

What does England moving to Plan A mean? My colleague Rachel Hall has this explainer:

15:15

Portugal to allow Covid-positive voters to leave home on election day

Portuguese voters with Covid-19 or those in isolation due to exposure to the virus will be allowed to leave home to cast their ballots in a snap election on 30 January, the government said on Wednesday.

The announcement came a day after Portugal, which has almost 90% of its 10 million population fully inoculated, reported a daily record of 43,729 Covid infections, stoked by the fast spreading Omicron variant. Hospital admissions and mortality remain well below levels seen in the previous peaks.

The interior minister Francisca Van Dunem told a news conference that quarantined voters should only head to polling stations from 6pm to 7pm, urging those not infected to go before that period.

The recommendation is not mandatory. They must wear a face mask, keep a social distance and can only leave home to vote.

Staff working at polling stations will be given protective equipment.

“We need a social pact that allows everyone to vote in safety,” said Van Dunem, asking those in isolation not to take public transport to the polling station but walk or use their own vehicle instead.

The head of health authority DGS, Graça Freitas, said there would be no designated areas for those with Covid-19 to vote in and they would not be required to show proof of their health status at the polls.

“This solution of having a dedicated time period for these people to vote… will prevent, not totally, but will minimise the risk of contagion,” Freitas said.

The election was called after parliament rejected the minority Socialist government’s budget bill for 2022. The prime minister António Costa’s party has a comfortable lead in opinion polls but is likely to fall short of a full parliamentary majority.

The election campaign is in full swing after Sunday’s kick-off and street rallies draw large crowds, where mask-wearing is optional.

14:45

A woman acting as a “guerrilla journalist” when she filmed inside a hospital in an attempt to prove her belief that lockdown measures were disproportionate has been convicted of a public order offence.

Debbie Hicks, 47, a former teacher and psychologist, filmed twice at the Gloucestershire Royal hospital in Gloucester in December 2020 and told staff who challenged her she could do what she wanted as she paid her taxes.

Hicks, from Stroud, argued that she was exercising her right to freedom of expression and trying to expose what she believed was a false government narrative that hospitals were full of patients with Covid.

But finding her guilty of using threatening words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, the district judge Nicholas Wattam said staff had the right to work without being molested.

Read the full story here: Covid denier fined for filming in Gloucester hospital

14:42

Czech Republic scraps mandatory Covid jabs as daily cases hit record

The Czech government has scrapped a decree making Covid-19 vaccinations mandatory for key professionals and over-60s to avoid “deepening fissures” in society, while the daily tally of new cases hit a record high.

The prime minister Petr Fiala said his new centre-right government did not see reasons for compulsory inoculation as the previous administration had planned in some sectors.

“This does not change our stance on vaccination. It is still undoubtedly the best way to fight Covid-19 … however, we do not want to deepen fissures in society,” Fiala told a news conference on Wednesday.

In December, the previous government ordered Covid-19 vaccinations from March 2022 for hospital and nursing home staff, police, soldiers and some other professions, as well as those aged over 60. That decision brought protests against the measures.

The policy turn comes as a wave of the Omicron variant hits the country of 10.7 million people. The health ministry said 28,469 new cases were reported for Tuesday, a record daily number since the start of the pandemic and more than double the 12,371 reported the same day last week.

Like other central European nations, the government expects about 50,000 daily cases by the end of the month.

In preparation, asymptomatic essential healthcare workers and social service personnel who test positive may be allowed to continue working. Businesses want the list extended.

Fiala’s government has also shortened quarantine and isolation times, while launching mandatory testing of employees at companies from this week.

Hospitalisations, which peaked in the latest Delta wave at more than 7,000 in early December, dropped to 1,635 on Tuesday from 1,761 reported for Monday.

The country has reported 36,937 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic, one of the world’s worst rates per capita.

Updated

13:47

German police have said they are currently investigating more than 12,000 cases of suspected forged vaccine passes.

Since December, when tighter restrictions were introduced in an effort to slow the spread of the Omicron variant, the number of reported forgeries has soared, police said.

In most public places in Germany the public now have to prove a 2G status – that they are double vaccinated or recovered – and more recently 2G +, which represents either an official lateral flow test result or a booster shot.

The measures do not apply to essential services such as medical practices, supermarkets and other grocery stores, whilst on public transport, 3G rules apply (according to which people have to prove they have been double vaccinated, have recovered or have a negative test result).

The demand for forged vaccine passes has increased as rules have tightened, the federal police department told the news agency DPA.

Forgeries have been particularly high in the southern state of Bavaria, where 4000 cases are active, and the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where police are investigating more than 3500 cases. The government in Munich has said it believes the real number is likely to be considerably higher.

Fake vaccines are also an issue in Germany, as highlighted following raids last week carried out at 100 addresses across four states, after it was discovered that a doctor in Bavaria had administered placebo vaccines – consisting of a saline solution – to his patients.

Vaccine sceptics from across the country reportedly travelled to his practice to receive the jabs and the accompanying vaccine certificate. Among the jabbed were also people who had thought they had received a genuine vaccine, discovering only through an antibody test offered by the local health authorities that that was not the case.

The doctor has been temporarily suspended by medical authorities, pending a criminal investigation.

One of the people who unwittingly received the placebo vaccine, a 50-year-old woman who lives with her 85-year old mother, told the tabloid newspaper Bild: “I was flabbergasted when I found out. I wanted BioNTech, but I got saline solution instead.”

She said the doctor had inoculated her in her right buttock, stating at the same time: “Be careful – winter’s coming”.

13:36

NHS and health leaders reacted with caution to the announcement that Plan B measures are to be scrapped in England, highlighting that with about 20,000 patients still in hospital with Covid, the current Omicron wave “isn’t over”, and warning that there could be “a second Omicron surge”.

Some accused ministers of “sending the wrong signal to the public” for political expediency, and said it was “very premature” to conclude the threat from Omicron had subsided.

Hospitals in some areas have also not yet hit predicted peak Covid admission levels, NHS leaders said.

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS hospital, mental health, community and ambulance services, said:

Trust leaders have been encouraged that the number of people catching Covid-19 is now falling nationally, and the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is stabilising.

However, there are 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. There are also regional variations in the number of Covid-19 hospitalisations, with the numbers increasing in the North East and Yorkshire, while decreasing in London. This means that some trusts tell us they are expecting their peak later this week, or possibly early next.

Cordery said it was “important” to recognise “that this surge isn’t over” and that “the health service is still operating under extremely challenging circumstances”.

She added:

The government must continue to examine the evidence closely and make calculations based on the future level of risk, including of a second Omicron surge.

Pat Cullen, the Royal College of Nursing’s general secretary and chief executive, said:

The prime minister’s decision to loosen the restrictions may have relieved the pressure from his backbenchers but will do nothing to relieve the pressure on the NHS.

Cullen said the country could not rely on vaccines alone when the situation is “still so precariously balanced”.

She added:

Time will tell whether dropping other measures when the pressure on health and social care services remains unrelenting was wise – particularly when thousands of unvaccinated nursing staff are facing the sack.

Ministers should adopt a cautious approach. The government will regret sending the wrong signal to the public for political expediency.

With so many Covid-19 patients still in hospital, it would be very premature to conclude this wave is over. That is not what our members are telling us.

13:25

Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, and a member of Sage appears to be furious with the relaxation of Covid restrictions in England.

In a couple of tweets following Boris Johnnson’s announcement, she said:

Right, okay…erm not sure we’re following the science… it’s still around, still at 1 in 20 people, still seriously infectious, still pretty unpleasant to catch. I’d keep ventilating and wearing masks folks

I see we’re also back to “face coverings for people you don’t normally meet” FFS, YOU CAN CATCH IT FROM A PERSON YOU KNOW

Prof Cath Noakes #Ventilate 😷 💙 (@CathNoakes)

Right, okay…erm not sure we’re following the science… it’s still around, still at 1 in 20 people, still seriously infectious, still pretty unpleasant to catch. I’d keep ventilating and wearing masks folks https://t.co/2i6nBVT8VI

January 19, 2022

Prof Cath Noakes #Ventilate 😷 💙 (@CathNoakes)

I see we’re also back to “face coverings for people you don’t normally meet” FFS, YOU CAN CATCH IT FROM A PERSON YOU KNOW

January 19, 2022

13:23

Teaching unions expressed concern about the sudden lifting of Covid restrictions, in particular the requirement to wear face masks in classrooms, warning that many head teachers in England are still seeing widespread disruption to education due to Covid.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

Schools and colleges are still feeling the impact of Covid. The latest ONS infection survey update shows 1 in 10 primary age pupils have Covid.

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.

The government is due to publish figures for Covid-related absence in schools next week. “The danger is we lift restrictions too quickly before the effects of returning to school are clear,” said Bousted.

This will result in more education disruption which is extremely worrying particularly for pupils taking national exams this year whose education has been so badly disrupted already.

There was also scepticism that the Covid announcements may have been politically motivated to distract from the prime minister’s predicament. “Rather than announcements aimed at saving Boris Johnson’s job, government should be exercising a duty of care to the nation’s pupils and the staff who educate them,” said Bousted.

This disruption is at the door of the government who should have got ventilation and filtration solutions in place before Omicron as advised by Sage and they should be getting these solutions in place urgently now to ensure interruption of education remains at the minimum.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the prime minister’s decision to lift Plan B measures is at odds with the situation school leaders are facing on the ground.

Whiteman warned:

Mass disruption is ongoing, with high numbers of staff and pupils absent. School leaders are telling us they still feel very much in the eye of the Covid storm. The reality for many children and young people is that Covid continues to seriously disrupt the normal rhythm of schools.

Parents and teachers alike will be hopeful that we have passed the peak of infections from Omicron, but it is imperative that schools continue to be supported by government to keep the gates open, as we emerge from the depths of winter disruption.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, gave a conditional welcome to the announcement on masks, as long as it is supported by public health and scientific advice.

He said the situation in schools and colleges remains extremely challenging with significant levels of pupil and staff absence due to Covid as well as difficulties in obtaining supply cover because of high demand.

There is a danger that we are heading once again for a situation in which the government gives the impression that the crisis is over when in actual fact there is huge disruption continuing to take place in education and it is very far from being a case of business as normal.

The Department for Education later clarified that masks will no longer need to be worn in classrooms from Thursday, but will continue to be worn in communal areas in schools in England until Thursday next week when masks will go altogether.

Updated

13:02

Linked to the announcement that Plan B measures will be dropped in England from next week is falling infection levels across most of the country, writes our science editor Ian Sample.

Covid infections are falling across most parts of the UK, according to the latest official data which suggest that the winter wave driven by the Omicron variant has passed its peak.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that infections in the community fell in England, Wales and Scotland in the week ending 15 January, with the trend in Northern Ireland still uncertain.

The figures mark a turning point in the latest phase of the epidemic which has seen weeks of record-breaking infections in the UK fuelled by Omicron. While infection levels are still high, the ONS estimates that they fell in England from 3,735,000 in the first week of January, with 1 in 15 people testing positive, to 2,984,200 or 1 in 20 testing positive last week.

Similar declines were seen in Wales and Scotland where the ONS estimates that 1 in 25 and 1 in 20 people, respectively, had the virus in the week ending 15 January. Infections may be approaching a peak in Northern Ireland too, where a further 1 in 20 were estimated to have the virus last week.

The interim data from the ONS, which will be followed by a full report on Friday, show Covid infections declined in all regions of England in the most recent week, except the North East and the South West where it was unclear whether cases had peaked for now.

While infections decreased in most age groups in England in the latest week of the survey, they rose in young children aged two years old to year six of primary school.

Sarah Crofts, head of analytical outputs for the ONS Covid-19 infection survey said the latest figures showed “a welcome decrease in infections across most parts of the UK and among all age groups apart from younger children.”

12:56

Mandatory face masks, Covid passports and working from home advice to be scrapped in England

Plan B measures aimed at tackling the spread of Covid are to be dropped across England, the prime minister has announced.

Boris Johnson told MPs more than 90% of over-60s across the UK had now had booster jabs to protect them, and scientists believed the Omicron wave had peaked nationally.

He said the government had taken a “different path” to much of Europe and the “data are showing that, time and again, this government got the toughest decisions right”.

The restrictions, which include working from home advice, mandatory face masks in some settings and Covid passports, will be allowed to expire on 26 January.

The news comes as Covid infection levels are falling in most parts of the UK for the first time since early December.

From 27 January, the following changes will take effect in England:

  • End of mandatory Covid passes, but businesses can continue to use them if they choose to
  • It will no longer be a legal requirement to wear a face mask, including in classrooms for secondary students and on public transport, but they will still be recommended in some places, such as in enclosed or crowded spaces, particularly when you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet
  • End to work from home guidance
  • Restrictions on care homes will be eased – further detail to be released

However, there will still be a legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive for Covid.

But Johnson said there will “soon be a time” when self-isolation guidance can be removed entirely. The regulations expire on 24 March, he said, adding he does not expect to renew them.

Updated

12:29

A cross-party committee of councillors is to decide the future of the Sheffield city council chief executive, Kate Josephs, a week after she apologised for having leaving drinks in Whitehall during lockdown.

Josephs led the government’s Covid-19 taskforce from July to December 2020. After details of the gathering emerged in the media she released a statement admitting it took place and saying she was “truly sorry”.

Sheffield city council, her current employer, said a committee of councillors would be set up “to consider what steps, if any, should be taken next”.

Josephs’ leaving drinks gathering was attended by dozens of officials from the Cabinet Office’s Covid-19 taskforce.

On the day it was held the government’s official Twitter feed replied to a query asking if employers could hold Christmas parties at the end of the working day.

The feed said: “Hi Mick, although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.”

The full story is here: Sheffield council to decide fate of chief Kate Josephs following lockdown drinks