Ministers are seeing â€œencouragingâ€ signs that plan B coronavirus restrictions in England could be lifted in 10 daysâ€™ time, the co-chair of the Conservative party Oliver Dowden has said.
Current measures in England, including guidance to work from home and the widespread use of face coverings, were imposed in early December to help tackle the spread of Omicron. They are set to be reviewed on 26 January.
In the clearest hint yet that some or all of the measures will be removed on that date, Dowden, who also serves as minister without portfolio, said that while the government would review further data this week before making a decision, the â€œsigns are encouragingâ€.
Covid cases continued to fall on Sunday, with a further 70,924 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases recorded in the UK as of 9am. The figure represents a 50% fall from the 141,471 cases reported the previous Sunday, although the new figures do not include data from Scotland, because of an IT problem.
Dowdenâ€™s comments came after health and scientific experts expressed cautious optimism this weekend that the Covid situation was improving.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief medical adviser, said cases appeared to be â€œplateauingâ€ in parts of the UK, and added that while cases were still relatively high, there had also been a slowdown in hospital admissions.
Prof Linda Bauld, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh and chief social policy adviser to the Scottish government, said Omicron cases in the UK appeared to be â€œstabilisingâ€. Dr Chris Smith, a consultant virologist and lecturer at Cambridge University, said the latest data gave him â€œgreat cause for optimismâ€.
Meanwhile, the amount of time people with Covid-19 in England have to spend in self-isolation is to be cut to five full days from Monday.
Dowden told Sky Newsâ€™ Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme: â€œIt has always been my hope that we would have the plan B restrictions for the shortest period possible. Iâ€™m under no doubt the kind of burdens this puts hospitality, wider business, schools and so on under, and I want us to get rid of those if we possibly can. The signs are encouraging but, clearly, we will wait to see the data ahead of that final decision.â€
Sir Keir Starmer said he hoped plan B restrictions could be lifted â€œas soon as possibleâ€. Speaking on the BBCâ€™s Sunday Morning programme, the Labour leader said: â€œI think the sooner we can lift the final restrictions, the better. I think thatâ€™s what the whole country want. Itâ€™s important that weâ€™re led by the science on this. We had access to the government scientific and medical advisers, and thatâ€™s helped us form our views.
â€œI hope those restrictions can be lifted as soon as possible, but I want them to be lifted because the medical science says they should be lifted, not simply because the prime minister is in a real mess and heâ€™s desperately trying to get out of it.
â€œSo, if itâ€™s the right thing to lift those restrictions, we will vote to lift those restrictions. But weâ€™ll be led by the science as we always have been, not by the politics of propping up a broken prime minister.â€
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said he could not be confident the government was not looking to lift plan B measures in an attempt to shore up Boris Johnsonâ€™s leadership.
He told Trevor Phillips on Sunday: â€œIf the prime minister or the health secretary from the Conservative party is coming forward saying, â€˜Weâ€™re going to remove Plan B measuresâ€™, I want to be absolutely confident they are making that decision in the national interest and not in the party interest, for party management reasons. I donâ€™t have total confidence about that.â€