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Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British public they must “learn to live with this virus” as he announced his intention to lift remaining lockdown restrictions.
At a press conference on Monday, Mr Johnson declared that 16 months of extraordinary intervention in people’s lives to curb the spread of the coronavirus will end in only two weeks’ time.
However, scientists are divided as new infections driven by the fast-spreading Delta variant continue to surge in the UK.
What will change in England on July 19?
Face masks becoming voluntary was among the major changes outlined by the prime minister.
Like much of the world, mask-wearing has been a feature of life in the UK since the pandemic began. Face coverings were made compulsory on public transport, hospitals, shops and restaurants in June last year after scientific advice on their effectiveness in preventing transmission of the virus.
The prime minister also announced the end of the one-metre social distancing rule and QR sign-ins at pubs and restaurants, while a statement is also expected on working from home.
The remaining restrictions in England which will also be brought to an end include:
- the "rule of six" for indoor gatherings
- table service at restaurants
- nightclubs closed
- capacity limits in theatres, cinemas and at sporting events
- home-working if possible
- limits on care home visits
Why are the rules changing?
England will proceed to the fourth and final stage of the lockdown road map, which outlined an end to most social distancing rules.
"We must be honest with ourselves that if we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal?" Mr Johnson told a news conference.
"We will move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus."
Care Minister Helen Wheatley said life in England would be “much more normal” after restrictions are lifted.
“The vaccination programme has really weakened the link between people catching the virus, ending up in hospital and, sadly, the risk of dying," she said.
“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.”
Social distancing restrictions were due to be lifted on the original "freedom day" on June 21 but this was delayed by a month due to rising cases caused by the fast-spreading Delta variant.
Will people still be required to wear face masks?
Mr Johnson urged people to exercise caution on mask-wearing even if the legal requirement to wear one is scrapped.
In a statement, the prime minister said people should “exercise judgment when going about our lives”. "I must stress that the pandemic is not over and that cases will continue to rise over the coming weeks," he said.
“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.”
What about a Covid passport to attend large events?
Mr Johnson highlighted the benefits of Covid passports for attending large events when announcing a review about their use in the UK.
However, he said they will not be required in a fortnight's time.
The Tony Blair Institute warned the government it could be unwise to scrap the Covid pass plan after a new report suggested the introduction of passports could cut Covid infections by a third and the number of deaths in England by around 10,000.
The report proposed the mandatory use of Covid passes at nightclubs and for large events would be temporary and would be required only when case numbers were high.
Are Covid cases rising in the UK?
Yes, cases have risen substantially since the latest easing of lockdown restrictions on May 17, when groups of six were allowed to meet indoors.
Ministers blame the spread on the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19, with new daily cases nearing 30,000.
However, hospital admissions and deaths remain flat, with data showing vaccines remain highly effective at preventing severe illness from the virus.
The majority of people admitted to hospital with Covid are unvaccinated.
Vaccine uptake in Britain is strong, with 86 per cent of adults receiving a first dose and 64 per cent receiving two doses as of Sunday.
What are scientists saying about the changes?
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 Andrew Pollard, 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 the BBC Radio 4 Today programme 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.
Mr Johnson reiterated that Covid must be treated like other common diseases in circulation, such as the flu.