Boris Johnson will update MPs on coronavirus measures today amid growing hopes some Plan B curbs can be relaxed next week.
Restrictions introduced last month to halt the spread of the Omicron variant – including Covid passports, work from home guidance and wearing face masks in most indoor public spaces – are due to expire next Wednesday.
Insiders believe face coverings could still be required beyond January 26 but other restrictions are likely to be axed.
A Government spokeswoman said: "Decisions on the next steps remain finely balanced.
"Plan B was implemented in December to slow the rapid spread of the extremely transmissible Omicron variant, and get more jabs in arms.
"It's thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the NHS and many dedicated volunteers that we have now delivered over 36 million boosters to people across the UK.
"The Omicron variant continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over.
"Infections remain high but the latest data is encouraging, with cases beginning to fall."
Health Secretary Sajid Javid yesterday revealed he was “cautiously optimistic” measures can be eased.
The Cabinet Minister believed the Government could “substantially reduce” restrictions.
But figures last night showed the highest daily death toll in almost 11 months.
Some 438 deaths were reported – the biggest 24-hour total since February 24 when 442 were recorded.
UK PARLIAMENT/AFP via Getty Imag)
However, Tuesday's data is often skewed because of reporting lags over the weekend.
Another 94,432 Covid-19 infections were diagnosed, with the rolling seven-day average down 38.9%.
Fuelling hopes Wednesday's review of Plan B measures could lead to some being relaxed, Mr Javid told MPs it was likely “we have already reached the peak of the case numbers of hospitalisations”.
Speaking in the Commons, he added: “The action that this Government has taken in response to Omicron and the collective efforts of the British people have seen us become the most boosted country in Europe, the most tested country in Europe, and (have) the most antivirals per head in Europe.
“That is why we are the most open country in Europe.
“I have always said that these restrictions should not stay in place a day longer than absolutely necessary.
“Due to these pharmaceutical defences and the likelihood that we have already reached the peak of the case numbers of hospitalisations, I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to substantially reduce restrictions next week.”
Hospital admissions remain fairly static, though they are falling in some parts of the country.
Across England there are currently 16,621 Covid patients in hospital, down from 17,120 a week ago.
Figures showed 90.7% of over-12s have had a first vaccine dose, 83.4% a second jab and 63.6% a third or booster shot.
Experts believe the worst of the Omicron strain, which triggered the Plan B restrictions, could be over in the UK.
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, hailed “very encouraging signs” of cases plateauing or dropping in some places.
The University College London expert said scientists hope the “direction of travel” for Covid-19 variants is that they become less severe.
“It doesn’t do the virus any good to become increasingly severe,” he told Times Radio.
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“In fact, it looks like the Omicron variant, by becoming more transmissible, that it’s also become less severe, and we would hope that’s the general direction of travel.”
He said that in future not everyone would need booster vaccines, adding: “I think the people that we might want to think about boosting the most are the same as flu really – people with chronic illness and elderly people – and we’ll probably move into a sort of more regular annual vaccination programme, or it may not even need to be that frequent."
Prof Hayward agreed the “pandemic will end” and people will live with the virus continuing to transmit, “but causing much less disruption”.
He added: “It will tend to, I think, settle into a seasonal pattern – we may still get quite big winters of infection but not the sort of level where we can justify wholesale societal closedown.
“So, I think it is genuinely an optimistic picture, but we’re still not quite there yet.”
The World Health Organisation’s special envoy, Dr David Nabarro, said: “This virus is constantly evolving and it’s super hard to predict where it will be – we can say where we hope we’re going to go, we can say where we’d like to go, we can say what we think we need to do to get there – but making promises that we’ll do something on a particular date, I think, is unwise.”
He believed the UK's situation "gives us grounds for hope".
“The goal that we’re all aiming for is a situation where this virus is present, but life is organised so that it is not disrupted,” he said.
“We also need to be humble – this virus is continuing to evolve and we’re never quite sure that we know exactly where it’s going to go next.”
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