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Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced plans to remove remaining Covid-19 restrictions on July 19 while urging the British public to “exercise judgment when going about our lives”.
Mr Johnson said he would “restore people’s freedoms” in two weeks’ time in England, with social distancing rules scrapped, face masks no longer compulsory, people no longer required to use QR codes and large events in full swing, with no intention to introduce vaccine passports.
The move marks a shift towards citizens' responsibility to manage the risks themselves after 16 months of unprecedented government intervention to bring the virus under control.
Mr Johnson said people must learn to live with Covid-19 as they already do with the flu, meaning infections will rise but hospital admissions and deaths will be limited by vaccine protection.
“Thanks to the successful rollout of our vaccination programme, we are progressing cautiously through our road map,” he said.
“Today we will set out how we can restore people’s freedoms when we reach step 4 [of the road map]. But I must stress that the pandemic is not over and that cases will continue to rise over the coming weeks.
“As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from Covid when going about our lives.”
Care Minister Helen Whately said on Monday the final unlocking meant returning to a “much more normal" life.
“The vaccination programme has really weakened the link between people catching the virus, ending up in hospital and sadly the risk of dying”, she told Sky News.
“We do anticipate infections will rise as we open up more and people go about life more like normal, but the important thing is more people getting vaccinated.”
Newly appointed Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who is considered more hawkish on the easing of rules than his predecessor Matt Hancock, will set out the changes in Parliament.
Business leaders including the Heathrow Airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye signed a letter calling on the government to make a decisive statement on what happens after July 19.
"For many months now, employers and employees have dealt with often complex – sometimes mixed – messages tending towards caution where the advice has not been clear cut," the open letter from 50 executives said.
"At this critical moment, we believe that it is essential that the Government is unambiguous in its communications that when the stage four restrictions lift, public transport is safe, offices are safe, and work-from-home is no longer the default. Employers can then move forward with plans for new ways of working, considering the needs of their staff, clients, and customers."
Some scientists criticised plans to remove the mask mandate.
Prof Stephen Reicher from the University of St Andrews in Scotland said he was worried that ministers appeared to be “unconcerned at levels of infection”.
“It is frightening to have a 'Health' Secretary who wants to make all protections a matter of personal choice when the key message of the pandemic is "this isn't an 'I' thing, it's a 'we' thing", he wrote on Twitter.
“Your behaviour affects my health.”
Prof Susan Michie from University College London was also critical.
"Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new 'variant factories' at a very fast rate", she said.
Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, was more optimistic about the easing of restrictions.
“I think we will reach a point where it’s increasingly difficult, if this link between the cases and the hospitalisations and deaths remains extremely weak or broken, where we can’t get back to normal”, he told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme earlier on Monday.
“Clearly with infections if you want to completely stop them the only way to do that is to stay at home - and we can’t go on like that.”
The British Medical Association at the weekend urged the government to maintain some restrictions owing to an "alarming" increase in the number of Covid cases driven by the Delta variant, which are nearly at 30,000 a day.
However, the uptake of vaccines in Britain has been strong, with 86 per cent of adults receiving a first dose and 64 per cent receiving two doses as of Sunday.
Data from Public Health England shows that vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe illness and hospital admissions from the Delta variant, the government said.