Dutch museums open as hair salons protest virus rules; Solomons enters snap lockdown over single Covid case; Johnson calls end to most Covid restrictions in UK

Thursday, Jan 20, 2022

London: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said most restrictions deployed to fight the latest wave of the Covid pandemic in England would be lifted from next week.

People will no longer have to wear masks in closed spaces, work from home and prove vaccination to enter public spaces such as nightclubs, Johnson told parliament. "Because of the extraordinary booster campaign... we can return to Plan A in England and allow Plan B regulations to expire," Johnson said.

Last month, England switched to "Plan B" in order to cope with what Johnson called a "tidal wave" of expected infections from the Omicron variant. But he had to fight his own party to get the changes into law, as Conservative party colleagues called the restrictions a step too far and a curb to public freedoms.

The relaxing of restrictions have been seen as a concession to critics angry at revelations that he and his staff broke Covid lockdown rules by holding parties at Downing Street. Johnson told MPs: "While there are some places where cases are likely to continue rising, including in primary schools, our scientists believe it is likely that the Omicron wave has now peaked nationally."

Secondary school pupils will no longer be required to wear face masks from Thursday, Johnson said, calling for the March 24 date for a review of self-isolation rules to be brought forward. After the Omicron variant emerged, Britain’s daily caseload for Covid topped a record 200,000 infections in early January, but has now dropped to less than half that.

Johnson said there was however still significant pressure on the state-run National Health Service "across our country" and encouraged people to have a booster vaccination. "We know that around 90 percent of people in intensive care are not boosted," Johnson said.

Facing restive Tory backbenchers, the prime minister had rebuffed calls by some scientists to impose a full lockdown in December, and allowed sporting events to continue with capacity crowds in England.

The devolved governments of Scotland and Wales imposed bans on large crowds at sports fixtures last month, but have now lifted that rule in time for the Six Nations rugby tournament starting next month.

Meanwhile, museums and concert halls temporarily turned themselves into beauty salons and gyms in the Netherlands on Wednesday in protest against the Dutch government’s coronavirus restrictions.

A barber and two nail artists tended to visitors among priceless works of art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and two barbers set up their chairs on the stage of the Concertgebouw in the capital.

Dutch authorities handed out enforcement notices to a number of the 70-odd venues that took part in the day-long protest. "We wanted to make the point that a museum is a safe visit and we should be open," Van Gogh Museum director Emilie Gordenker told AFP.

"The mayor called me last night and she said she’s not permitting this. We expect to get a warning at some point after which we will have to close, but we wanted to make this point very badly so here we are."

One of the barber’s clients said he had come because he was "pro-culture". "Let’s reopen business, let’s reopen culture as soon as possible," said Max Smit, 32. Meantime, the Solomon Islands’ capital began a snap 60-hour lockdown on Wednesday, after a single case of coronavirus was detected in the community, the prime minister’s office announced. Honiara was declared an emergency zone until early Saturday after a ship passenger from a remote atoll tested positive.

The Melanesian nation has been Covid-free for most of the pandemic, registering just 31 cases and zero deaths since it began. People will be confined to their homes for the duration and no travel is allowed outside the emergency zone.

The Solomon Islands -- with a population of around 700,000 -- has virtually sealed its borders since the start of the pandemic. In a related development, US actor John Malkovich was turned away from a luxury hotel in Venice last week after failing to present a valid Covid vaccination pass, Italian news media reported on Wednesday.

Local newspaper Il Gazzettino reported that the theatre and film actor, star of "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Being John Malkovich", was in Venice for two days of filming for US television series "Ripley".

Earlier on Wednesday reported five new locally transmitted coronavirus cases, raising fears of a fresh outbreak less than three weeks before the city hosts the Winter Olympics. The Chinese capital has already suspended thousands of flights and increased testing after the first community case of the Omicron variant was recorded on Saturday. City health authorities said Wednesday five new infections had been reported in the past 18 hours, bringing the total to eight.