After almost two years of restrictions, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Monday said it was time to live with the coronavirus, announcing an end to England’s remaining legal curbs and most free testing, and making his country an outlier in its handling of the pandemic.
Although careful not to declare the country’s health crisis officially over, Mr. Johnson sought to put the country firmly on the path to normalcy, albeit just a day after an announcement that Queen Elizabeth II had tested positive for the virus.
Some critics say that news underscores the risks of moving too quickly to scrap restrictions, while political opponents say that decisions are being taken in Downing Street to distract attention from a police investigation into whether Mr. Johnson broke the coronavirus laws he himself set.
In any event the statement is another political landmark for Mr. Johnson, setting his government ahead of most others in Europe in its speed in plotting a return to normal life. The new plan means that, starting Thursday, routine contact tracing will end and those who test positive will no longer be legally obliged to isolate themselves, although they will be urged to do so.
The supply of free tests, which are currently available widely, will end on April 1 for all except the most vulnerable, effectively forcing people to pay to find out whether or not they are infected. Enhanced sick pay to support those suffering from coronavirus will end in late March.
Speaking to Parliament, Mr. Johnson said he was setting out a strategy for living with the coronavirus, rather than declaring the pandemic at an end.
“It is time that we got our confidence back, we don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others, we can rely on that sense of responsibility toward one another,” said Mr. Johnson. He added: “Let us learn to live with this virus.”
Wishing Queen Elizabeth a speedy recovery, Mr. Johnson said that her illness was a reminder that “the virus has not gone away.” But, he said, “Whilst the pandemic is not over we have now passed the peak of the Omicron wave.”
The rules would apply only to England, if the changes are approved by Parliament. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own powers over health issues and make their own rules.
Even some of Mr. Johnson’s own lawmakers have expressed concern about the new strategy, particularly because of the restriction on the availability of free tests.
On Monday, a cabinet discussion on the details of the move to end most free testing was delayed for a few hours at the last moment, with news reports saying there had been differences among ministers about the continuing costs of coronavirus measures. Over the weekend, Mr. Johnson said testing was costing taxpayers around £2 billion, or $2.7 billion, a month.
Tim Loughton, a Conservative member of Parliament, said the country had to “learn to live with Covid and not lock everything down and retreat until it goes away.” But, speaking before the announcement, he told the BBC that he had “slight apprehensions in that I think we still do need to have testing available widely, because I think that is the reassurance people can have that they’ve taken all possible precautions and they don’t want to infect other people.”
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said earlier Monday that a second booster vaccination would be offered to adults 75 years and over, people living in care homes and those 12 years and older who suffer from conditions that suppress their immune systems.
Travelers arriving at the international airport in Sydney on Monday were greeted by lifeguards, drag queens, and a D.J. blasting local hits, as Australia reopened its borders to international visitors after nearly two years of shutting itself off from the rest of the world to try to keep the coronavirus at bay.
The country closed its international borders in March 2020 as part of its pandemic response, stranding citizens overseas and separating loved ones. Although the government gradually eased the harsh restrictions late last year — first loosening quarantine requirements for citizens, then allowing international students and some visa holders to return — tourists had remained banned and some residents continued to be cut off from friends and family.
Over 50 international flights were scheduled to land in Australia on Monday from countries including the United States, Britain, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. In Sydney, the first visitors arrived from Los Angeles just after 6 a.m., with travelers gifted koala stuffed toys and jars of Vegemite, a classic condiment spread, upon landing.
“It’s been a party out here at Sydney airport; everyone is celebrating,” Dan Tehan, the minister for tourism, said at a news conference at the airport on Monday morning. “It’s been quite extraordinary to see the way that people have been reunited — the hugs, the tears.”
Australia’s reopening comes as other countries in Asia also loosen restrictions even as the Omicron wave continues to roil the region. Last week, Japan announced that it would ease its border restrictions to allow more international students and visa holders to enter the country starting in March. And South Korea, which has recently been reporting more than 100,000 new cases a day, has started to ask people who test positive for the coronavirus to look after themselves at home, so the country can redirect resources to the most vulnerable.
Potential travelers and tourism operators alike are cautiously optimistic about the reopening of “Fortress Australia,” but many wonder if the isolated nation’s Covid restrictions — such as vaccine and testing requirements, as well as mask mandates — will make the return of international travel more of a trickle than a splash.
Travelers must show proof of full vaccination to enter Australia without having to quarantine in a hotel, and they must provide a negative coronavirus test that was taken within 24 hours of departure. Unvaccinated travelers must obtain an exemption from the country’s authorities to be allowed entry and must quarantine upon arrival.
Mr. Tehan brushed off concerns that Australia’s reputation for adhering to strict safety measures during the pandemic — at odds with the inviting, easygoing nature portrayed by the country’s tourism boards — may also keep travelers away. “People view Australia like they’ve always viewed Australia,” he said, “warm, welcoming, with the best, best attractions and the best locations you can go anywhere in the world.”
It’s unclear how long it will take the tourism industry to rebound. Questions remain over whether travelers from China, Australia’s biggest tourism market, will return. And the U.S. and New Zealand have recommended against traveling to Australia because of its Omicron outbreak. In January, Australia recorded its highest ever average of cases, while February has been the month with its highest average deaths.
Margy Osmond, the chief executive of the industry group Tourism and Transport Forum Australia, said that tourism operators were starting to see an increase “in bookings for the second half of this year.”
But the flights on Monday were the first steps on the road back. Clearly, she said, it “is going to take us a little time to get to the numbers pre-pandemic, but this is the beginning. This is the start.”
Neil Cavuto, the veteran Fox Business host who has not appeared on the network for over a month, returned on Monday, telling viewers that his absence was because of Covid-19 pneumonia that sent him to an intensive-care unit “for quite a while.”
“It really was touch and go,” Mr. Cavuto said on his show “Cavuto: Coast to Coast” on Monday, adding, “Doctors say had I not been vaccinated at all, I wouldn’t be here.”
Mr. Cavuto said this recent infection was “far, far more serious” than the one he got last year.
Mr. Cavuto, who hosts about 17 hours of television every week with three different shows, has been among Fox’s most vocal proponents of vaccination, and on Monday he sought to dispel misinformation about his recent illness.
“No, the vaccine didn’t cause that,” he said of his extended illness. “That ‘grassy knoll’ theory has come up a lot.”
“Because I’ve had cancer, and right now I have multiple sclerosis,” Mr. Cavuto continued, “I am among the vulnerable 3 percent or so of the population that cannot sustain the full benefits of a vaccine.”
Mr. Cavuto told viewers that Fox had not explained his prolonged absence — according to a Fox spokeswoman, he had not been on the network since Jan. 10 — because the network was “honoring my wishes, out of respect for my privacy.” But, he added, “this did drag on a long time for me, so you do deserve an explanation from me.”
The network has come under criticism after some of its popular hosts, including Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, and their guests have falsely suggested that vaccines could be dangerous. Compared with them, Mr. Cavuto has been an outlier.
After recovering from Covid late last year, Mr. Cavuto appeared on the Fox program “Media Buzz” to discuss his experience. “I’d like to urge people of all sorts: Please get vaccinated,” Mr. Cavuto said at the time.
He received a diagnosis of cancer in the 1980s, a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 1997, and had heart surgery in 2016, the network reported. Because of his medical history, Mr. Cavuto said, he, like “plenty of people” at Fox and another companies, was susceptible to Covid.
“If you can get vaccinated,” he went on to say, “and think of someone else and think of what that could mean to them and their survivability from something like this, we’ll all be better off.”
As people across the world grapple with the prospect of living with the coronavirus for the foreseeable future, one question looms large: How soon before they need yet another shot?
Not for many months, and perhaps not for years, according to a flurry of new studies.
Three doses of a Covid vaccine — or even just two — are enough to protect most people from serious illness and death for a long time, the studies suggest.
“We’re starting to see now diminishing returns on the number of additional doses,” said John Wherry, director of the Institute for immunology at the University of Pennsylvania. Although people over 65 or at high risk of illness may benefit from a fourth vaccine dose, it may be unnecessary for most people, he added.
Federal health officials including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s top Covid adviser, have also said that they are unlikely to recommend a fourth dose before the fall.
The Omicron variant can dodge antibodies — immune molecules that prevent the virus from infecting cells — produced after two doses of a Covid vaccine. But a third shot of the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or by Moderna prompts the body to make a much wider variety of antibodies, which would be difficult for any variant of the virus to evade, according to the most recent study, posted online on Tuesday.
The diverse repertoire of antibodies produced should be able to protect people from new variants, even those that differ significantly from the original version of the virus, the study suggests.
What’s more, other parts of the immune system can remember and destroy the virus over many months if not years, according to at least four studies published in top-tier journals over the past month.
Specialized immune cells called T cells produced after immunization by four brands of Covid vaccine — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax — are about 80 percent as powerful against Omicron as other variants, the research found. Given how different Omicron’s mutations are from previous variants, it’s very likely that T cells would mount a similarly robust attack on any future variant as well, researchers said.
This matches what scientists have found for the SARS coronavirus, which killed nearly 800 people in a 2003 epidemic in Asia. In people exposed to that virus, T cells have lasted more than 17 years. Evidence so far indicates that the immune cells for the new coronavirus — sometimes called memory cells — may also decline very slowly, experts said.
“Memory responses can last for ages,” said Wendy Burgers, an immunologist at the University of Cape Town who led one of the studies, published in the journal Nature. “Potentially, the T-cell response is extremely long lived.”
Throughout the pandemic, a disproportionate amount of research attention has gone to antibodies, the body’s first line of defense against a virus. That’s partly because these molecules are relatively easy to study: They can be measured from a drop of blood.
Analyzing immune cells, by contrast, requires milliliters of blood, skill, specialized equipment — and a lot of time. “It’s orders of magnitude slower and more laborious,” Dr. Burgers said.
Few labs have the wherewithal to study these cells, and their findings lag weeks behind those on antibodies. Perhaps as a result, scientists have frequently overlooked the importance of other parts of the immune system, experts said.
The singer Justin Bieber has tested positive for the coronavirus, one day after he began his world tour in San Diego on Friday, a representative for Mr. Bieber confirmed on Sunday.
A show at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas that was scheduled for Sunday has been postponed to June 28, according to a statement on social media. The third stop on the tour, at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., outside of Phoenix on Tuesday, was also rescheduled for late June, the tour said.
“Justin is of course hugely disappointed, but the health and safety of his crew and fans is always his number one priority,” the statement said.
A representative for the singer declined to comment on whether other members of the tour have also tested positive for the coronavirus, but the statement about his performance on Sunday being rescheduled did start off by saying it was because of a Covid outbreak within “the team.”
Mr. Bieber’s tour, called Justice in Action, had been previously delayed because of the pandemic.
During the tour, he has planned to perform in several countries over 13 months. The singer is aiming to raise awareness about several issues, including criminal justice reform and climate change. Fans who engage with organizations he is supporting can earn reward points that can be redeemed for prizes like tour merchandise and a trip to meet Mr. Bieber in Paris.
His next show is scheduled for Thursday at The Forum in Los Angeles. That would just meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for isolating for five days after a positive coronavirus test. The C.D.C. advises ending isolation after five days if you have been fever-free for 24 hours and your symptoms are improving, but recommends wearing a mask when around others for an additional five days.
Israel will reopen to all foreign tourists, regardless of their vaccination status, as the country eases travel restrictions amid a rapid decline in coronavirus cases from the Omicron variant.
Only fully vaccinated foreign visitors have been allowed to enter the country since January, but that mandate will end as of March 1, Israeli leaders announced in a statement Sunday. Tourists entering Israel will be required to pass two P.C.R. tests — one before departure and one after arrival.
Israel has reported a 63 percent decline in new coronavirus cases over the past two weeks, according to according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.
Israel has maintained a stringent border policy throughout the pandemic and its once-thriving tourism industry has struggled. It first closed its borders to most foreign travelers in March 2020, and did not reopen them until Nov. 1, 2021. By the end of 2021, the borders were shut again, amid the Omicron wave.
The authorities are also easing restriction on Israeli nationals, who will no longer be required to undergo a P.C.R. test before their flights — only after arriving in the country. Unvaccinated Israelis will no longer have to quarantine after returning if they test negative.
— Ada Petriczko
The Omicron wave hammered the American work force, sending more people home sick than at any other point in the pandemic. Yet unlike in 2020, there is no federally required paid sick leave for workers — and none at all for the one-fifth of workers who don’t receive it from their employers.
Now, as Omicron recedes and many restrictions are being lifted, and as more of the country begins to treat Covid as an unavoidable part of life, some Democratic lawmakers and others are trying to revive paid leave for Covid-related reasons.
In January, 2.3 percent of the American work force was home sick, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — three times that of a typical prepandemic month.
The disruptions have continued: In the last week of January and first week of February, 12.8 million Americans did not work because they had Covid or were caring for someone who did, or because their child’s school or day care was closed, a census survey found. That accounted for 21 percent of all adults who were not working and not retired. Another three million people didn’t work because they were concerned about getting or spreading the virus.
Whether they got paid sick leave and whether their jobs were protected depended on where they lived and worked.
“As we enter the endemic phase of Covid, it’s a critical tool in returning to normal,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow for paid leave policy and strategy at New America, a left-leaning policy group.
The main idea Democrats are pursuing now is to include a new round of Covid paid sick leave in the spending bill to fund the government, the deadline for which has been extended to March 11. They are also considering a stand-alone paid sick leave bill, or the inclusion of paid leave in a Covid relief package for businesses.
Yet the United States remains one of 11 countries, and the only rich country, with no federal paid sick leave. During the pandemic, most wealthy nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development temporarily expanded their sick leave to cover people in quarantine and self-employed workers, and to relieve employers from paying for sick leave themselves.
March 2020, the start of the pandemic, was the first time the United States offered comprehensive paid leave. The program expired in December that year. It gave two weeks to workers who were sick or needed to care for someone who was, and 12 weeks to care for children whose schools were closed. Employers were fully reimbursed in the form of a payroll tax credit.
The leave excluded more than half of private-sector workers, including those at companies with more than 500 workers and at many small businesses. Even so, there was evidence that it slowed the spread of Covid.
ESTANCIA, N.M. — The chorus of small voices ringing from a third-grade classroom on a recent morning signaled how far Estancia Elementary School had come in resuming a sense of normalcy after the latest coronavirus surge.
Students in the small, remote community of Estancia, N.M., were enthusiastically engaged in a vocabulary lesson, enunciating words with a “bossy r,” as well as homophones and homonyms, and spelling them on white boards.
But there was also a sign of how far the district, about an hour outside Albuquerque, still had to go. The teacher moving about the classroom and calling on students to use the words in a sentence was clad in camouflage. “My substitute is wearing gear,” one student responded.
“Yes,” Lt. Col. Susana Corona replied, beaming. “The superintendent allows me to wear my uniform. I’m wearing a pair of boots.”
For the last month, dozens of soldiers and airmen and women in the New Mexico National Guard have been deployed to classrooms throughout the state to help with crippling pandemic-related staff shortages. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has also enlisted civilian state employees — herself included — to volunteer as substitute teachers.
New Mexico has been the only state to deploy National Guard troops in classrooms. But since the fall, when districts around the country began recruiting any qualified adult to take over classrooms temporarily, several other states have turned to uniformed personnel. National Guard members in Massachusetts have driven school buses, and last month, police officers in one city in Oklahoma served as substitutes.
The scenes of uniformed officers in classrooms have solicited mixed reactions. Some teachers see it as a slight against their profession, and a way to avoid tackling longstanding problems like low teacher pay. Other critics have worried that putting more uniformed officers in schools could create anxiety in student populations that have historically had hostile experiences with law enforcement.
OTTAWA — A cavalcade of big rigs rumbled into the Canadian capital, blocked major streets, drew thousands of supporters, enraged residents and captured the attention of a shocked nation for three weeks. Now they’re gone, leaving Canadians to grapple with some high stakes questions about their country’s political future.
Was the occupation an aberration, or was it the beginning of a more fundamental shift in the country’s political landscape? Did their chaotic blockade alienate the public so much that the movement has no shot at a future, or did it form the base for a lasting political organization?
“There is a worry, and it’s been expressed in all kinds of ways, that this protest movement will become something much more significant and much more sustained,” said Wesley Wark, a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation, a Canadian public policy group. “It was given terrific oxygen to spread its message.”
The moment is uniquely tied to the pandemic: Protesters demanded an end to all government pandemic measures. But it is also part of a broader trend.
Social media was a driving force behind street protests of the past decade or so, uniting multitudes in occupations from Zuccotti Park in New York to Gezi Park in Istanbul. But research has shown that such movements often have a tough time converting their energy into real change.
By Sunday afternoon, streets in Ottawa that had been clogged with trucks, makeshift canteens and noisy protesters were largely empty except for police vehicles. A swath of downtown had been fenced off. A protester compound that had occupied a baseball stadium’s parking lot had been cleared — though about two dozen heavy trucks and a cluster of other vehicles reconvened about 100 kilometers outside the city.
During their three-week occupation, much about the protests alienated Canadians. At a border blockade in Alberta, police seized a large cache of weapons and charged four protesters with conspiring to murder police officers.
But demonstrators also saw much of the disruption they caused as a tactical victory.
After deploying armies of workers to lock down some residents and announcing plans to build a large makeshift hospital, the authorities in Hong Kong are taking another page out of China’s coronavirus playbook: using traditional Chinese medicine to treat Covid-19 patients, despite scant evidence to prove the strategy is effective.
Chinese state news media announced on Sunday that the mainland government had donated 150,000 boxes of traditional Chinese medicine to Hong Kong in an effort to help the city manage a surge in Covid cases fueled by the Omicron variant. As of Monday, Hong Kong had reported nearly 40,000 cases in the latest wave, surpassing the total case numbers for 2020 and 2021 combined. Thousands of new cases are being reported each day.
There is little scientific evidence to support the use of the medicine, identified by Hong Kong news outlets as Jinhua Qinggan, for either the treatment of Covid or for the prevention of transmission of the coronavirus. The shipment sent to Hong Kong was made by Juxiechang Pharmaceutical, a Beijing-based company.
The medicine was developed by government-affiliated researchers during the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009 and consists of 12 herbal components, including honeysuckle, mint and licorice. The Chinese state-owned newspaper China Daily reported in 2020 that the medicine was effective in treating mild and moderate cases in patients in the central city of Wuhan, in early 2020. But most of the data comes from observational studies, the weakest kind in medicine.
The consensus of many scientists who have examined the substance, most of whom are based in China, is that Jinhua Qinggan has potential for use as a treatment for Covid because it displays antiviral properties, but that more high-quality research is needed. It contains Glycyrrhiza glabra, or licorice root, which inhibits viral replication in the test tube, and it also appears to cause changes in the ACE2 receptors that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to penetrate the cells.
Licorice root, one of the oldest herbal remedies in the world, is used for ailments from heartburn to respiratory illness, but it can interact with many medications and should not be taken by anyone who is pregnant or who has heart disease, high blood pressure or kidney disease. At high doses, it can cause serious adverse side effects, such as increased blood pressure.
One small, randomized controlled trial of the kind considered the gold standard in medicine concluded that when Jinhua Qinggan was given to outpatient Covid patients as an add-on to conventional treatment, fever, cough and fatigue were reduced more quickly than with standard therapies alone. But it did not significantly reduce Covid hospitalizations.
Some scientists, both inside and outside China, have raised concerns about the Communist Party’s push to promote traditional medicine despite the lack of randomized, controlled studies to show its effectiveness and safety. Under Xi Jinping, China’s top leader and a vocal proponent of traditional medicine, Beijing has exported the treatments around the world as part of a wider pandemic diplomacy campaign. The health authorities in Pakistan, a close ally of China, reported last month that a small clinical trial involving the treatment had been successful, but the results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, or shared publicly on any preprint platforms.
The use of traditional Chinese medicine to treat Covid is the latest sign of how Hong Kong is under pressure to hew to Beijing’s stringent “zero Covid” approach. Prescribing traditional Chinese medicine has been a part of the mainland’s strategy since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan. Copying the Chinese model has proved difficult in Hong Kong, which lacks the mainland’s ability to enforce near-total control and is also dogged by low levels of public trust in the government.