England lifts Omicron restrictions
January 28, 2022 03:50 AM
England on Thursday lifted coronavirus restrictions imposed to tackle the Omicron variant, with masks no longer required in enclosed places and vaccine passports shelved.
The number of positive Covid-19 cases has fallen sharply over the past two weeks, and although still at high levels, have plateaued in recent days.
The UK government introduced the so-called "Plan B" restrictions on December 8, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of a looming "tidal wave" of Omicron.
Face masks were required in all enclosed spaces and, controversially, vaccine documentation also was to enter places such as nightclubs, football grounds and large-scale events.
On the streets of London around St Paul's Cathedral, there was general support for the lifting of restrictions, which comes after more than 37 million people had booster jabs.
"I think it's a really good thing," said Elizabeth Hynes, 71, who is originally from Ireland but has lived in England for 47 years.
"I was coming up the lifts here at St Paul's and I was looking at all the shows" being advertised, she said of the posters inside the underground station.
"And I thought 'how wonderful, it's like old times'.
"It's like we're getting back to how London was, and you realise how much you've missed live theatre and fantastic shows."
Hynes said she had stage-4 melanoma skin cancer, but had so far "been lucky" and not caught Covid.
"We don't know about tomorrow, we have to live... for today, trying to get a bit of enjoyment out of life," she added.
Julia, 28, from Spain, said it was time to "have a normal life".
"It's been two years and it's time to take responsibility ourselves," she said as she waited for the St Paul's eatery in which she works to open.
"In Spain we need to wear masks everywhere, even in the street," she added.
Even if "there's nobody in the street... you need to wear the mask. On the beach, you need to wear the mask.
"I prefer the UK restrictions because it's going to be very difficult to visit the family there. I'm fully vaccinated but I don't want to get the vaccine every nine months."
- 'Traumatic' -
England previously lifted restrictions on July 19, so-called "Freedom Day", but then introduced new rules as the Omicron wave arrived.
Health minister Sajid Javid credited the country's booster programme for allowing restrictions to be lifted.
"Our vaccines, testing and antivirals ensure we have some of the strongest defences in Europe and are allowing us to cautiously return to Plan A, restoring more freedoms to this country," he said.
From Thursday, passengers on London's transport network will still be required to wear face masks but they will no longer be mandatory in secondary school classrooms.
"It was traumatic for them, they couldn't hear the teachers, the teachers couldn't hear them," Hynes said of the mask rules in school.
US holidaymaker Ethan Letson, 24, agreed with London Mayor Sadiq Khan's decision to mandate face coverings on the capital's trains and buses.
"I still wear the mask on public transport, I will wear it in very crowded areas like the Underground. It's so tight down there, you could get sick at any time," he said.
Unlike Scotland and Wales, which set their own health policy, England kept nightclubs and bars open over the festive period.
But businesses still took a heavy hit as punters stayed at home.
Hospitality workers in the business district around St Paul's said things had only just started to improve.
"The last week, business has started to pick up again. Around Christmas it was dead," said bartender Lewis Colby, 39.
"People aren't so scared anymore, trains are busier coming into work, people are starting to drink more."
Despite the lifting of restrictions, those who test positive for coronavirus must still self-isolate for a minimum of five days.
Johnson said he also hopes to scrap those rules when they expire on March 24.
Israel rolls out fourth vaccine dose
Israel announced Wednesday that it would start making fourth Covid-19 vaccine shots available to all vulnerable people aged over 18, continuing its drive to beat successive virus waves with top-up jabs.
Israel was among the first countries to launch mass Covid immunisation campaigns for its population.
It then began offering booster shots last summer, and has since approved fourth shots for elderly and vulnerable populations.
On Wednesday, health ministry director Nachman Ash announced a new stage in the campaign, saying that all immunocompromised people and frontline workers over 18 would be eligible for a fourth shot.
He cited a study showing that a fourth dose of the Pfizer vaccine causes a three to fivefold increase in the number of antibodies in a vaccinated person, compared to someone who has received three doses.
More than 600,000 Israelis, out of a total population of 9.4 million, have received a fourth dose of vaccine, according to the health ministry's figures.
The country has seen daily new infection rates rocket to record highs in recent days as the Omicron variant sweeps the globe.
So far, Israel has recorded 8.513 deaths due to Covid-19.
Moderna begins trial of Omicron-specific vaccine booster
US biotech company Moderna announced on Wednesday that it has begun clinical trials of a booster dose of vaccine designed specifically to combat the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The trials will involve a total of 600 adults -- half of whom have already received two doses of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine at least six months ago, and half of whom have received two doses plus the previously authorized booster dose.
The booster specifically targeting Omicron will therefore be evaluated as both a third and a fourth dose.
The company also reported results on the efficacy against Omicron of the booster that has already been authorized.
It said that six months after the booster injection, the levels of neutralizing antibodies against Omicron were reduced by six times from the peak observed 29 days after the injection -- but remained detectable in all participants.
These data were obtained by studying the blood of 20 people who received the 50 microgram booster, half the amount of the first two injections.
"We are reassured by the antibody persistence against Omicron at six months after the currently authorized" booster, Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said in the statement.
"Nonetheless, given the long-term threat demonstrated by Omicron's immune escape, we are advancing our Omicron-specific variant vaccine booster candidate and we are pleased to begin this part of our Phase 2 study," Bancel continued.
Moderna's statement came the day after rivals Pfizer and BioNTech said they had begun enrollment for a clinical trial for an Omicron-specific vaccine.
Both vaccines are based on messenger RNA technology, which makes it relatively easy to update them to keep up with mutations specific to new variants.
Several countries, including the United States, have begun to see a decline in cases associated with the infection wave caused by Omicron, the most transmissible variant detected so far, but the number of infections worldwide continues to rise.