Boris Johnson has announced that the government will lift all domestic Covid-19 restrictions for England by the end of February, despite daily cases still numbering in the tens of thousands. This follows the Tories’ January decision to remove “plan B” restrictions, which were introduced to address the Omicron variant. Johnson argues that the removal of restrictions is in line with the current trend of Covid cases, but health workers and unions have rightly criticised these changes as both reckless and dangerous.
The government removed the mask mandate for England in late January, meaning there is no legal requirement to wear a mask on public transport, in shops, or schools. However the wearing of masks is still recommended, as Boris Johnson argued in the House of 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 judgement of the British people and no longer criminalise anyone who chooses not to wear one.”
As the government are so aware of the need for continued mask wearing, there is no sense in removing the mandate. With the legal consequences gone, the Tories’ actions are discouraging mask wearing far more than their words are encouraging it.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, argues: “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.”
Schools have been an area of key concern throughout the pandemic, especially with the typical class size nearing 30, and poor ventilation in many buildings. Already this year, 1 in 20 students and 9% of teachers in England have been absent due to Covid-19, and the removed mask mandate will surely only worsen this.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, says: “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 plans to continue the lifting of restrictions in England by ending the legal requirement to self-isolate following a positive Covid-19 test. Boris Johnson announced such a change for the end of February: “Provided the current encouraging trends in the data continue, it is my expectation that we will be able to end the last domestic restrictions – including the legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive – a full month early.” He had previously announced a lifting of restrictions for the end of March.
This is, frankly, a horrific move. There is no reason that someone who has Covid-19 should be coming into contact with other people. This will only endanger more lives and increase the virus’ spread. Now yes, it may be a bother for some businesses that their employees are having to take days off with the virus, but what is a greater bother is said employees coming in, infecting all their coworkers, and potentially having all staff off. So even from the angle of making a profit, it is a ridiculous notion.
Additionally, the “trends in the data” aren’t all that encouraging either. Yes, the number of new cases has been falling in England, and across Britain, since the new year. However, there are still thousands of new cases every day, with 58,453 new cases recorded in England on February 8th. Even if cases continue to fall, lifting measures that reduce the spread of Coronavirus will, unsurprisingly, increase the spread and undo this progress.
There have been 1,800 British deaths from Covid-19 in the last week at time of writing. This is with the self-isolation rules still in place. Hundreds of deaths daily, and the Tories will still go ahead and make things even worse. They have made the same mistake time and time again: case numbers fall, restrictions loosen, case numbers rise again, and all the while hundreds, if not thousands of Brits die preventable deaths.
Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Birmingham branch