England's remaining coronavirus restrictions will be lifted from next Monday, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not rule out other restrictions or lockdowns.
Despite earlier promising that a move away from lockdowns would be “irreversible”, Mr Johnson on Monday said his priority was to protect the public and the National Health Service.
It was a Downing Street press conference that was markedly downbeat from a week ago, when Mr Johnson suggested that normality, or “freedom day”, on 19 July meant all restrictions would be lifted with little chance of going back.
But since Mr Johnson appeared before cameras on July 5, the UK daily death rate has risen from an average of 18 to 29, an increase of 56 per cent. Similarly, infections have gone up from 25,000 to 31,000, and hospital admissions to have risen by 56 per cent.
“We know we're going to see more hospitalisations and more deaths from Covid,” Mr Johnson said, but he added that the projections for infections and mortality were “at the lower end”.
“So, 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 said.
“But it is absolutely vital that we proceed with caution. And I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough, this pandemic is not over. This disease continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply revert instantly on Monday, 19 July, as it was before Covid.”
Despite the dangers, Mr Johnson said England would lift its legal restrictions, including 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.”
The government instruction to work from home would go, “but we don't expect that the whole country will return to their desks as one on Monday”.
He also urged nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather to make use of the NHS Covid Pass, which shows proof of vaccination.
The rigid border policy of quarantine for those people arriving from “red list” countries, including the UAE, would remain.
The four-week delay to the original “freedom day” of June 21 has allowed time for seven million more vaccine shots, with every adult offered a first dose.
Britain has implemented one of the world's fastest vaccination programmes, with more than 87 per cent of adults having received at least one dose of a vaccine and 66 per cent having received two.
The scientific evidence now showed that having two doses reduced infection by 80 per cent and the need for hospital treatment by 90 per cent, said Chris Witty, Chief Medical Officer for England.
He said that 2,700 people were in hospitals with Covid-19, yet at the height of the second wave in January that was nearly 40,000 people.
“The data would imply that if we go slowly with the next stage of the road map, the expectation is this will not reach the point where it is putting unsustainable pressure on the NHS,” he said.
The four-week delay in lifting restrictions had had “a significant impact on reducing the amount of hospitalisations and deaths”.
Asked again if the restrictions would be irreversibly lifted and that there would be no further lockdowns, Mr Johnson offered a more cautious reply than before.
“We must rule nothing out, and I've been very clear that we must protect the public and we will not hesitate to use the means that we have at our disposal,” he said.