Boris Johnson said the country is on a path to “complete normality” as commuters began returning to the office.
After work from home guidance was ditched, National Rail showed a 10 per cent increase in rush hour travel yesterday compared with last week, with roads in some big cities also increasingly busy.
As well as his widely anticipated decision to remove plan B measures, the prime minister made a surprise announcement yesterday that he hoped to end all Covid laws in March, meaning people testing positive would no longer be required to isolate.
While some scientists have criticised the government for “mixed messaging”, other senior advisers said that as the risk of overwhelming the NHS recedes, the government “needs to remove itself from managing people’s risk”.
Johnson said: “We hope that we’re now on a route map back to complete normality.”
On a visit to a diagnostic centre in Taunton, he boasted of “enormous progress” in dealing with the pandemic, saying: “The booster campaign has enabled us to open up. We’re moving back to the status quo, and indeed back to plan A, opening up our economy. We’ve got the most open economy and society in Europe, the fastest growth in the G7, as a result of that booster campaign.”
Johnson said that “people can go back to work” but stressed it was “important that people remain cautious”.
Network Rail figures showed that 303,000 people used its stations between 6am and 10.30am on Thursday, up 10 per cent on the same time last week. In London, 1.1 million people used the Tube before 10am, up 8 per cent on a week ago.
The navigation company TomTom said that congestion levels were up on last week, with journeys in London taking 72 per cent longer than on empty roads, up from 66 per cent last week. In Manchester congestion levels rose to 63 per cent on Thursday from 56 per cent last week. However, the data from other cities was largely unchanged.
The increase began before Wednesday’s decision to end plan B, with Google mobility data showing that visits to places of work were 23 per cent below pre-pandemic levels on Monday, after starting the year 61 per cent lower.
The figures suggest commuters have largely returned to pre-Omicron habits, with workplace attendance standing at 22 per cent below normal levels when plan B was imposed in December. This time last year, work attendance was 46 per cent below normal levels at the height of the third national lockdown.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said that people would increasingly be asked to rely on “personal judgement” as the government looks to phase out Covid laws. He said he was “optimistic” about ending requirements for people with the virus to isolate when emergency powers expire on March 24.
“I do want to see a time as soon as we can to remove all remaining rules and restrictions around Covid, because we do have to learn to live with this virus in the same way we have learned to live, for example, with the flu,” he told the BBC.
While some have questioned the timing of the announcement, Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said it was crucial the government maintained “access to testing, information, vaccines and treatments” so that people could manage their own risk.
“The transition of the epidemic into endemic involves the passing of responsibility of risk management from government to individual,” he said.
“Government’s major risk is over-running of healthcare, and when the government is satisfied that this risk has been avoided it needs to remove itself from managing people’s risk.”
However, Simon Williams, of Swansea University, criticised the government for sending out mixed messages on how people should behave. “The problem with the general advice to ‘be cautious’ is that it is too vague and conflicts with the message that is sent by the removal of all policy measures and protections,” he said.
“As we saw in the summer, simply suggesting that people wear facemasks in certain settings is likely to result in a substantial drop-off in mask wearing. It is also a problem where different countries in the UK put forward different policies and messages on things like masks and self-isolation requirements.”