Boris Johnson has confirmed that almost all legal coronavirus restrictions in England will be lifted next Monday but he called on the public to act with caution, warning that "this pandemic is not over".
The British prime minister said that although wearing face coverings would no longer be mandatory, the government “expected and recommended” that they should continue to be worn in crowded indoor settings such as on public transport and in shops.
He also urged caution in returning to workplaces, saying he did not expect everyone to stop working from home right away. And although nightclubs can reopen with no capacity limits and the one-metre rule will go, large venues will be encouraged to use domestic vaccine passport to determine who should come in.
“It is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution. And I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough. This pandemic is not over. This disease coronavirus continues to carry risks for you and for your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday, 19th July to life as it was before Covid,” he told a press conference in Downing Street.
The lifting of restrictions comes amid a surge in coronavirus cases, which are currently running at more than 30,000 a day. But although the government expects case numbers to reach 100,000 a day and hospitalisations and deaths to rise as England reopens, chief medical officer Chris Whitty said he was confident the National Health Service would not be overwhelmed.
“The slower we take it, the fewer people will have Covid, the smaller the peak will be, and the smaller the number of people who go into hospital and die,” he said.
Labour condemned the government's decision to lift legal restrictions next week as reckless and shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth warned that a further surge in infections would cause unnecessary illness and death. Speaking in the House of Commons, he accused health secretary Sajid Javid of taking a fatalistic approach to dealing with the virus.
“We want to see the economy reopen in a balanced, safe and sustainable way. That means maintaining certain mitigations to contain the speed at which infections are rising, to help reduce transmission and to help to limit the numbers exposed to the virus before they are fully vaccinated. Instead, the secretary of state has taken a high-risk, fatalistic approach, trying to game what might happen in the winter and deciding that infections are going up anyway,” he said.
“Instead of caution, he is pushing his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seatbelts off. He admits that that could mean 100,000 infections a day, which means potentially thousands suffering debilitating long Covid and that, as more cases arise, more may escape, with the threat of a new, more transmissible variant emerging.”
Eighty seven per cent of adults in Britain have received a first vaccination dose and 66 per cent are fully vaccinated. Mr Javid said official data suggested that the vaccination programme in England had prevented between 7.5 million and 8.9 million infections, 46,000 hospitalisations and about 30,000 deaths.