Boris Johnson set to announce easing of social distancing rules despite backlash from scientists

Drinkers expected to be allowed to order at the bar again – as public urged to ‘learn to live with this virus’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 05 July 2021 09:28
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Robert Jenrick says face masks will be matter of 'personal choice'

Boris Johnson is poised to announce the easing of social distancing rules, despite a backlash from scientists over his willingness to accept more serious illnesses and deaths from Covid-19.

People will be urged to “learn to live with this virus”, when the prime minister unveils decisions on whether to scrap the “one-metre-plus rule” and work-from-home guidance, on Monday.

He is expected to say England is on course to remove the distancing rule on 19 July – allowing drinkers to order at the bar again – after a cabinet minister revealed the wearing of face masks will be voluntary.

But the likely end to restrictions, and a call by Sajid Javid, the new health secretary, for an acceptance that “cases are going to rise significantly”, likening Covid to flu, drew fierce criticism.

Mr Johnson will brace the public for serious illness and deaths to continue, at a Downing Street press conference – with the link from rising infections only “weakened”, not severed – but at far lower levels than before most people were vaccinated.

One member of the government’s Sage advisory body called Mr Javid’s comments “frightening”, while a second warned it would result in new “variant factories”, as transmission soared.

A public health expert branded the removal of all Covid restrictions in just two weeks’ time “absolutely bonkers” and Mr Johnson was warned the pandemic could still spiral “out of control”.

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But the prime minister, who is also expected to kill off plans for Covid-status certificates to attend large events, will also argue for the virus to be considered like flu – which kills 20,000 people in a bad winter.

“As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from Covid and exercise judgement when going about our lives,” he will say.

Ministers and scientists will weigh up the latest data at a morning meeting. On Sunday, a further 24,248 lab-confirmed infections, and 15 deaths, were announced, while hospital admissions are rising by 24 per cent week-on-week.

The backlash came after Mr Javid called the health arguments for lifting all restrictions “compelling”, saying: “We also need to be clear that cases are going to rise significantly.”

Professor Stephen Reicher, a Sage member, tweeted: “It is frightening to have a ‘health’ secretary who still thinks Covid is flu, who is unconcerned at levels of infection, who doesn’t realise that those who do best for health also do best for the economy, who wants to ditch all protections while only half of us are vaccinated.

“The key message of the pandemic is “this isn’t an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing. Your behaviour affects my health. Get your head around the ‘we’ concept.”

Professor Adam Finn, from the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), warned the pandemic could still spiral “out of control” in the UK.

“I shall certainly be continuing to wear a mask if I have got any symptoms, or if I am in an enclosed space with lots of other people for a prolonged period of time,” he said.

And, warning of countries in “fourth and fifth waves”, he added: “I’m worried about that, not just out of a sense of fairness for the people around the world, but actually also for us in the UK.”

Pointing to the arrival of the highly-infectious Delta variant from India, Prof Finn told Sky News: “That will happen again if the pandemic goes forward unchecked around the world.

“Then we’ll be left with a worse problem and I think that is the most likely scenario to cause a fourth or fifth wave in this country that would be out of control.”

Professor Robert West, a public health expert at University College London, argued the removal of all Covid restrictions so quickly was “absolutely bonkers”.

“It’s like having a government that thinks road safety should be completely up to ‘individual responsibility’: no traffic lights, no highway code, no law about driving on the left, no crash barriers,” he tweeted.

Earlier, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, lifted the lid on Mr Johnson’s series of announcements, as he hailed “very promising” data for completing the roadmap out of lockdown on 19 July.

Confirming mask wearing would be voluntary, he told Sky News: “The state won’t be telling you what to do, but you will want to exercise a degree of personal responsibility and judgement.

“So different people will come to different conclusions on things like masks for example.”

On Saturday, the British Medical Association pleaded with the government not to scrap all face covering rules, with Covid cases rising sharply and a third wave underway.

But Mr Jenrick hailed “a much more permissive regime” from 19 July, although final decisions will only be announced one week earlier.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves attacked off-the-record briefings that the data is heading in the right direction, telling ministers to “present the evidence” from scientists.

“It is important, if QR codes are going to stop, if the masks are going to come off, that we are absolutely confident that is the right thing to do,” the shadow chancellor said.

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