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Johnson may scrap vaccine passports, restrictions at the end of this month as Omicron recedes

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to permanently revoke emergency Covid-19 laws as the country’s COVID-19 cases continue to fall, several media platforms have reported. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has effectively ‘killed off’ the controversial policy, according to a report in The Times with Mr Javid telling MPs that he shared their “instinctive discomfort” at the vaccine pass policy. 

Plan B restrictions also look likely to go in Britain when they are reviewed at the end of this month, meaning working from home could be axed.

However, in Ireland, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said over the weekend that a planned phase-out of restrictions and Covid measures could take months. On RTE Radio yesterday, the Tánaiste admitted Ireland may have acted out of an “excess of caution” throughout the Covid crisis as he hinted towards a return to normality.

Adding to long-awaited hopes of a return to normality in the UK, Labour has accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of scrapping Plan B restrictions for ‘party management’ reasons. Controversial vaccine passes will be scrapped as early as this month as the country’s Omicron wave continues to collapse, it has been claimed. 

Whilst Varadkar has said he anticipates a phased reopening of society to begin from the end of the month, he also said measures must be in place to “respond rapidly” if there is a resurgence of Covid.

Ireland has taken a particularly strict approach, with more restrictive measures introduced here than in England or the North of Ireland. 

Strict measures included the closure of nightclubs and an 8pm curfew for hospitality venues, introduced in December, amid fears over the Omicron variant. NPHET is set to meet on Thursday to recommend the next move as Omicron subsides. Across Ireland, the number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen week-on-week for the first time since the Omicron strain emerged.

Speaking yesterday, Varadkar said that he hoped some restrictions might be lifted soon.

Acknowledging Ireland’s stringent measures, he told RTE Radio on Sunday: “Last summer, and the summer before that, we had the strictest rules. I don’t think that should be the case this summer.” 

“I’ll be pushing for a more ambitious, quicker reopening over the next couple of months. Nothing risky, nothing reckless, certainly something that’s in line with our European peers.”

The Tanaiste admitted Ireland was among only a handful of countries where it had not been possible to go stand at a bar or go into an office for a full two years. Varadkar conceded that Ireland may have acted out of an ‘excess of caution’.

“On many occasions we’ve acted out of an abundance of caution. But sometimes an abundance of caution can be an excess of caution. And we need to avoid that,” he said.

He did however add that the removal of restrictions could take ‘months’: “We need to make sure that we are able to respond rapidly as well if there is a resurgence of the virus and that is a possibility.

“I don’t anticipate that we’ll just remove all restrictions at the end of January or the start of February. I think it will be a phased process over the next couple of months.” He hoped all restrictions could be eased later this year.

HSE chief executive, Paul Reid, also speaking over the weekend, said that the Covid-19 trends in Ireland “give great hope”. Taking to Twitter, Mr Reid said that fewer patients in intensive care needed oxygen support and that GP referrals had decreased. He argued that: “Booster vaccines and the public’s response have so far eased the worst impacts.”

Currently, people in England need to show proof of vaccination or a negative lateral flow to enter large events and nightclubs. The same applies in Ireland, which employs the EU’s vaccine passport system. In a development set to spark controversy, it was recently announced that EU vaccine passes will only be valid for 9 months without a booster dose. The new rule comes into force on 1st February. Although the change will be for travelling within the EU, the bloc’s executive body has recommended that member states, such as Ireland, also apply it on a national level. 

Referring to the scrapping of Covid Plan B measures, a Whitehall source told The Times: “There was always a very high threshold for the policy and it looks increasingly likely in a couple of weeks that threshold won’t be met. The way cases are going it will be hard to justify renewing.”

Boris Johnson was met with incredible backlash from the Tories over the introduction of the Plan B measures, which included vaccine passes, with nearly 100 Conservatives revolting against the prime minister as they defied the party whip to vote against them.

Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost dramatically resigned in protest of the rollout of vaccine passports and other curbs on freedom. Last week, he slammed the ‘Covid theatre’ of mandatory covid passes and masks, and called lockdown a ‘serious mistake’.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, First Minister Paul Givan expressed hope that Stormont will be able to announce Covid rule relaxations when the Executive meets this week. Chief scientific adviser for Northern Ireland, Professor Ian Young, has said he also hopes that as case numbers begin to fall, it will be possible for the Executive to remove some of the current Covid restrictions. 

In Wales, the First Minister has announced Covid curbs will finally be loosened at the end of this month. Mr Drakefield said that there was little need for current restrictive measures in Wales now that Omicron is ‘coming down very rapidly’. The move is no doubt set to be celebrated by many, with the Welsh government imposing very tight restrictions over Christmas, as they shut nightclubs, reintroduced the ‘rule of six’ and banned any more than 50 people from attending an indoor event.

Mr Javid said that “no restrictions — none at all — should be in place for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary”.

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