As Omicron backs down, England revives Plan A: living with COVID

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  • Plan B COVID-19 measures expire in England on Thursday
  • Embattled Prime Minister Johnson bets on boosters and antivirals
  • The reinforcements and the lower severity of Omicron improved the results in January
  • But experts say endemic COVID may still be common and deadly

LONDON, Jan 27 (Reuters) – After an uneasy but relatively brief return to coronavirus restrictions triggered by the Omicron variant, England is back on “Plan A”: learning to live with a disease that is likely here to stay.

The bet is that booster shots, antiviral pills and Omicron’s lower severity will allow the government to manage outbreaks of a virus that cannot be blocked. Other countries equally interested in freeing up business and personal freedom will be on the lookout.

Work-from-home guidance ended last week, and measures such as mask mandates and COVID passes, also introduced in England last month, expired on Thursday, returning the rules to where they were last July.

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The UK Health Security Agency is preparing to shift focus and support vulnerable people rather than impose national rules, according to a draft policy seen by Reuters.

“As we evolve to live with COVID-19, the UKHSA response to COVID-19 will move from a whole-of-nation approach to a targeted response, focused on protecting the vulnerable,” the document, titled “UKHSA COVID-19 Vision – DRAFT”.

“We will ensure that our future response is more agile, flexible and convenient for citizens and offers good value for money.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has presided over a death toll of 150,000 that ranks seventh in the world, was forced in December to introduce “Plan B” restrictions, angering some of his own lawmakers. . He now has a strong political imperative to scrap them.

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As police investigate gatherings at his offices during the COVID lockdowns, in apparent violation of laws he himself imposed, he faces the biggest crisis of his career, while many of his members of parliament are determined he must give back. life to normal.

BECOMING ENDEMIC

Conservative lawmaker Andrew Bridgen told Reuters further COVID-19 restrictions were “unlikely, unnecessary and politically impossible”.

Johnson himself told lawmakers last week: “As COVID becomes endemic, we will need to replace legal requirements with advice and guidance.”

He also said he would let the law requiring people with COVID-19 to self-isolate expire in March, and even seek to move that date forward.

Much of their confidence comes from the nature of Omicron, which brought infections to record levels in December without increasing hospitalizations and deaths to the same extent.

Graham Medley, chairman of the government’s COVID modeling group, told Reuters that when Plan B was presented, the seriousness of Omicron and the impact of the boosters were unclear.

In the event, even at the peak, with social restrictions falling short of a full lockdown, daily deaths remained below 300 on a 7-day average, compared to more than 1,000 a day in the third national lockdown a year before.

Medley said growing immunity, with 83% of those over 11 receiving two doses of the vaccine and 63% getting a booster, meant that each future wave should be less challenging, although there could be setbacks:

“While I expect next January to be better than this one, and next January to be better than next January, I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we had to go back.”

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There is also a potential new resource, in the form of antiviral drugs, intended to prevent high-risk people who contract the virus from becoming seriously ill, but these have not yet been widely implemented.

“Things have changed a lot in the last six or seven months,” said Harkishan Mistry, 58, who was enrolled in Merck’s molnupiravir “Landscape” trial (MRK.N) after contracting the virus.

“We have a clear path forward. I am optimistic now,” Mistry said on a video call from Bradford, where he was self-isolating.

His view was echoed by Health Minister Sajid Javid, who said: “Our vaccines, tests and antivirals ensure we have some of the strongest defenses in Europe and allow us to cautiously return to Plan A, restoring more freedoms to this country.” “.

THERE IS NOT ANY YET?

But evolutionary virologist Aris Katzourakis of the University of Oxford warned that diseases such as malaria and polio may be endemic, but not harmless.

“A disease can be endemic, widespread and deadly,” he wrote in the scientific journal Nature.

“It frustrates me when politicians invoke the word ‘endemic’ as an excuse to do little or nothing.”

A relentless focus on managing COVID, rather than preventing infection, also has unintended side effects.

As NHS resources have been diverted to vaccination boosters, thousands of other appointments have been postponed, adding to a large backlog of elective care in the state system. At the same time, high infection rates among staff and patients continue to weigh heavily on hospitals.

“This is about living safely with COVID. It’s not just about living with COVID,” said Matthew Ashton, Director of Public Health for Liverpool City Council.

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“We all desperately want the pandemic to end,” he added. “Minimizing disruption is part of that solution. I definitely feel like we’re on the road to safe living with COVID, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Nick Thomas, a family doctor in Witney, central England, who supports the Panoramic trial, said local practices were also feeling the pressure, despite the success of vaccines and the prospect of effective antivirals.

“We have to handle all of those (other conditions) as well as a wave of Omicron right now. And that balance is really important, and the more tools we have, the better.”

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Reporting by Alistair Smout and Elizabeth Piper in London; Additional reporting from Clara-Laeila Laudette in Madrid; Edited by Kevin Liffey

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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