UK prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that England will formally emerge from lockdown on 19 July as the final social restrictions imposed on the public to thwart the coronavirus are removed, despite his own admission that cases of Covid-19 are rising “significantly”.
Speaking at Downing Street on Monday evening, Mr Johnson conceded that, “We’ve come to a stage in the pandemic when there is no easy answer or obvious date for unlocking,” observing that infections are rising at a rate of 30,000 a day and acknowledging that the Delta variant is now running rampant across Europe.
“We think now is the right moment to proceed, when we have the natural firebreak of the school holidays in the next few days,” he explained, arguing that it is safer to unlock now than in September when the colder weather is beginning to dawn and flu season approaching while conceding that “more hospitalisations and more deaths” are likely to occur.
The prime minister was careful to couch his remarks by warning the public that the arrival of “Freedom Day” next week is only possible because of the success of the vaccine rollout and by begging individuals to get their jab and to exercise caution to prevent the reinstatement of lockdown measures becoming necessary.
“It is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution. And I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough,” he said.
“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 19 July to life as it was before Covid.”
On the specifics of what will change, Mr Johnson said: “We will stick to our plan to lift legal restrictions and to lift social distancing, but we expect and recommend that people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces where you come into contact with those you don’t normally meet, such as on public transport.
“We’re removing the government instruction to work from home where you can but we don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desks as one from Monday. And we’re setting out guidance for business for a gradual return to work over the summer.
“And as a matter of social responsibility we’re urging nightclubs and other venues with large crowds to make use of the NHS Covid Pass – which shows proof of vaccination, a recent negative test or natural immunity – as a means of entry.”
Responding to the prime minister, doctors’ leaders condemned his decision to press ahead with lockdown lifting as “irresponsible”, with the British Medical Association (BMA) warning of “potentially devastating consequences”.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA council chair, said that by going ahead, the government was reneging on its promise to be led by the data and the impact on the NHS, arguing that scrapping restrictions while a significant proportion of the population was still not fully vaccinated would allow the virus to “retighten its grip”, driving up infections and hospitalisations and putting more lives at risk.
“It’s irresponsible – and frankly perilous – that the government has decided to press ahead with plans to lift the remaining Covid-19 restrictions on July 19,” he said.
“The BMA has repeatedly warned of the rapidly rising infection rate and the crippling impact that Covid-related hospitalisations continue to have on the NHS, not only pushing staff to the brink of collapse but also driving up already lengthy waiting times for elective care.
“The prime minister repeatedly emphasised the importance of a slow and cautious approach, but in reality the government is throwing caution to the wind by scrapping all regulations in one fell swoop – with potentially devastating consequences.”
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chairwoman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said her organisation did not generally involve itself in public debate but “felt it necessary to say caution is vital” regarding 19 July.
“We need everyone to think very carefully and responsibly about what they’re doing personally: Just because the law changes doesn’t mean that what we do as individuals has to change,” she told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, responded to the decision by observing: “One person’s freedom is another person’s Fear Day.”
The latest daily official figures showed cases continue to surge with a further 34,471 laboratory-confirmed infections in the UK as of 9am on Monday.
Under current modelling, the peak of the wave is not expected before mid-August, when there could be 1,000 to 2,000 hospital admissions per day, with deaths possibly reaching between 100 and 200 per day.
What are the rules on masks from 19 July?
Nationwide regulations on mask-wearing are to be lifted, although there will be an “expectation” that the public continue to sport masks in confined spaces out of consideration for others.
Local transport authorities and airlines will also be able to set mask-wearing as a condition for travel but there will be no law requiring them to be worn.
Leaving the issue largely down to a matter of “personal choice” will be welcomed by some who have found them uncomfortable and by conservatives who have long considered the requirement an infringement of their civil liberties but it could cause tensions in workplaces where employees feel uncomfortable about having no more safeguarding measures in place.
What are the new rules on social distancing?
Social distancing rules will also be scrapped, meaning table service-only measures will no longer be necessary in pubs and restaurants and drinkers can once more order at the bar.
Sports stadiums and entertainment venues such as nightclubs, theatres and cinemas will be allowed to fully reopen with no cap on capacity and care homes will be reopened to visitors.
However, distancing will continue at ports and airports, where the one-metre plus rule will still apply for passenger safety.
What are the new rules on self-isolating?
The requirement to self-isolate for 10 days will remain in place for those who test positive for Covid-19 but those who have had both vaccine jabs will not have to quarantine when returning from an amber list holiday destination or, as of 16 August, automatically self-isolate if contacted by the NHS track and trace app.
Instead, they will be encouraged to take a PCR test to establish whether they themselves have contracted the virus, only after which might self-isolation be considered necessary.
What are the rules on working from home?
The requirement to work from home, where possible, will end, but employers are being encouraged to consult with their staff before issuing definite instructions.
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