Boris Johnson has confirmed plans to tear up social distancing and mask rules on 19 July despite forecasts of 50,000 daily coronavirus cases by that date, warning that failure to reopen society now could force England to keep restrictions in place until 2022.
The prime minister said he believed that high vaccination levels will provide a summer “firebreak” to hold numbers of deaths down as the third wave of Covid-19 peaks, but admitted he might have to reimpose curbs in the winter if new jab-resistant variants emerge.
Mr Johnson’s “now or never” announcement that he intends to allow all businesses – including nightclubs – to reopen and scrap limits on social gatherings and attendance at cultural and sporting events in two weeks’ time was welcomed by trade bodies.
But the PM was branded “reckless” by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, while unions and mayors, including those of London and Greater Manchester, made clear they want masks to remain mandatory on public transport.
And the TUC said it was “not acceptable” for government to “outsource its health and safety responsibilities” by withdrawing the requirement to work from home where possible and handing over to employers the onus for providing a safe return to workplaces.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said the government was “repeating many of the same mistakes they made last summer”.
“It’s a gut-churning deja vu for those of us whose loved ones paid the ultimate price for those mistakes,” said co-founder Jo Goodman, who lost her father to the virus.
And the Royal College of Nursing warned that healthcare workers will need enhanced protections if the government sends out the message to the public that masks are no longer needed.
“This disease does not disappear on 19 July,” said the RCN’s Jude Diggins. “No available vaccine is 100 per cent effective. Public mask-wearing is straightforward and well-established – government will regret the day it sent the wrong signal for political expediency.”
Public sector union Unison warned the “hasty” changes were “too much too soon” and would create “a confusing cocktail of guidance”.
A YouGov poll found that 71 per cent believe masks should remain mandatory on public transport and 66 per cent in shops for a further period after restrictions are lifted.
And more than half (54 per cent) of those questioned in a separate survey by Savanta ComRes said that the public cannot be trusted to take the appropriate measures to protect themselves and others from coronavirus.
In a press conference from Downing Street, Mr Johnson confirmed that he intends the delayed step four of his roadmap out of lockdown – initially pencilled in for 21 June, but held back because of the surge in cases of the infectious Delta variant of Covid – to take place on 19 July. But he stressed that ministers will not take a final decision until they have assessed the latest data on 12 July against their four tests for safe reopening.
He announced there will be no mandatory “Covid passports” to control entry into venues such as pubs and restaurants – though businesses can impose schemes of their own.
And he said that individuals will be allowed to take their own decisions on social distancing, as part of a drive to “move from government diktat to people using their personal responsibility”.
Mr Johnson said that by July 19 every adult will have had the chance to have a first vaccine dose and two-thirds will have received their second jab. The recommended interval between doses will be cut for under-40s from 12 to eight weeks, allowing everyone over 18 to be fully protected by the middle of September, he said.
But chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance left no doubt that they expect Delta variant cases to continue to gather pace in the weeks before 19 July.
Flanking the PM, Prof Whitty said there was “uncertainty” over when the current third wave of coronavirus will peak, but said that modelling suggests it will come before pressure on the NHS reaches the intensity seen in January this year. And he said that the coming winter can be expected to be “very difficult for the NHS”.
Mr Johnson himself said that the 27,334 positive cases reported on Monday across the UK could be expected to rise to 50,000 or more by 19 July, adding that “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid”.
Nine deaths and 358 hospitalisations were recorded on Monday, but the 4.9 per cent weekly rise in fatalities was far below the 53.2 per cent increase in infections, in an indication of the effectiveness of vaccines.
Mr Johnson warned: “If we don’t go ahead now, when we we’ve clearly done so much with the vaccination programme to break the link between infection and death, if we don’t go ahead now, when the summer firebreak is coming up with the school holidays and all the advantages that that should give us in in fighting the virus, the question is when would we go ahead?
“Particularly given the likelihood that the virus will have an extra advantage in the colder months of the autumn and the winter.”
Delaying beyond 19 July would “run the risk of either opening up at a very difficult time when the virus has an edge, has an advantage, in the colder months or again putting everything off to next year”, he said.
But Prof Richard Tedder, senior research investigator in medical virology at Imperial College London, warned that scrapping all restrictions to social and economic life was “a very difficult balancing act”.
“Using vaccines in the present way to ‘free up our behaviour’ comes with the very real risk of facilitating the escape of variants which will be even more resistant to vaccines and potentially more infectious,” he said. “Failing to recognise this is playing with fire.”
Despite his previous promise to make relaxations of Covid restrictions “irreversible”, Mr Johnson admitted new curbs may be needed “if we do find another variant that doesn’t respond to the vaccines or if, heaven forbid, some really awful new bug should appear”.
Mr Johnson’s plans for England were not echoed in the devolved nations, with Scotland’s clinical director saying face coverings should stay in place north of the border, and Welsh health minister Eluned Morgan saying Cardiff “will be driven by the data not by any political deadline that has been set out artificially, which time and time again in England has been set and then missed”.
Sir Keir Starmer said that lifting all protections in one go when the infection rate is going up was “reckless”.
“A balanced approach, a proper plan, would say keep key protections,” said the Labour leader.
“One of them would be masks in enclosed places and on public transport – that’s a common sense position. More ventilation - that’s happening in other countries - is absolutely essential and proper payments for those that need to self-isolate.”
The chair of Westminster’s all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, Layla Moran, warned that Mr Johnson’s “rush” to ditch restrictions would expose thousands of unvaccinated people in younger age groups to the “devastating” impact of long Covid.
Under Mr Johnson’s plans, the NHS Test and Trace system will continue to instruct Covid-positive people and their contacts to self-isolate. But the PM signalled that he wants to give exemptions to double-jabbed individuals identified as contacts of coronavirus patients.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps will announce later this week whether they will also be allowed to return from “amber list” countries – including most popular European holiday resorts – without quarantine.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson will announce on Tuesday the removal of group bubbling in schools and an end to the requirement for early years settings, schools and colleges to routinely carry out contact tracing.
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