Rules requiring social distancing and face-coverings are to be lifted in England from 19 July in the final stage of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, health secretary Sajid Javid has announced.
But Labour accused Mr Javid and prime minister Boris Johnson of taking a “high risk, indeed fatalistic approach” at a time when daily coronavirus infections are running at 35,000 and are expected to reach 100,000 within weeks.
Instead of the “cautious” approach which the prime minister has promised to follow, he and Mr Javid are “pushing (their) foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belts off”, said shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth.
As widely expected, Mr Javid told the House of Commons that all remaining businesses closed by coronavirus restrictions – such as nightclubs – are to be allowed to reopen their doors from next Monday.
But clubs and other mass attendance venues where people come into close contact indoors will be strongly encouraged to use the NHS app to certify guests’ Covid status.
In a sharp change of tone following unease over the plans to end the legal requirement for social distancing, Mr Javid said that people will continue to be advised to wear face-coverings in crowded indoor settings like public transport and some shops.
Instructions to work from home if possible will be lifted, but Mr Javid made clear that ministers are not ordering people back to offices and factories, saying that the government expects and recommends a gradual return to workplaces over the course of the summer.
Employers will receive guidance over the coming days on how to ensure their premises are safe for staff and failure to do so could lead to prosecution under existing health and safety laws.
The test and trace programme will continue and people who test positive for Covid-19 or are identified by NHS Test and Trace as possible contacts of patients will still have to self-isolate for 10 days. Restrictions on international travel and quarantine for people returning from abroad remain unchanged.
Green MP Caroline Lucas criticised the government for “weakening” protections for the most vulnerable.
She accused ministers of pursing a “Darwinian strategy relying on immunity by natural infection”.
And Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Munira Wilson also questioned whether the government was pursuing a “survival of the fittest” policy where the “most vulnerable will be thrown to the wolves”.
The removal of legal requirements on social distancing and mask-wearing has sparked concern among scientists who fear the public will be confused by advice to take advantage of new freedoms in a cautious and responsible way.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the Nervtag group which advises ministers on new and emerging respiratory virus threats, said it would be much more difficult to persuade people in large numbers to observe mask-wearing guidance if it was not compulsory.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he said: “I think it is very difficult to say that it is up to people to choose whether to wear face masks when it is not only protecting yourself but also protecting other people. “It’s so much more straightforward to try to get face masks used in dangerous situations if there is some kind of compulsion behind it.”
And intensive care consultant Dr Sarah Clarke, a board member of the UK’s Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said pressure on the NHS would rise to unsustainable levels if people gave up on Covid suppression actions following 19 July.
“I would absolutely err on the side of extreme caution,” Dr Clarke told Times Radio. “I will continue to wear a mask at all times when I’m in an enclosed space, and I will to protect others and ensure that others stay as safe as possible.”
She said there had been a 60 per cent increase in admissions to intensive care over the last week, with more than 500 patients admitted every day. “That’s not sustainable if we all decide to take our masks off and think that the vaccine programme no longer applies,” she warned.
Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) group, said there had been “mixed messaging” over face masks.
He told BBC Breakfast that “some ministers have come out and said they’ll be very happy not to wear their face masks and then we’ve had others, even in the last couple of days, saying ‘we would still advise you to wear them in these settings’. “I think it’s quite confusing actually for people to know what the right thing to do is.”
Mr Javid told the Commons: “19 July will mark another step forward in our road to recovery.
Getting here has been hard-fought and it’s been long-awaited.
But this battle isn’t over yet. Let’s move forward in a confident but measured way, so that we can get closer to normal life and protect the progress that we’ve already made.”