Masks will still be “expected” in crowded places such as public transport when most remaining Covid restrictions are lifted later this month, a minister has said, in a marked toughening up of rhetoric amid concerns over soaring infection rates.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, who effectively confirmed Boris Johnson would announce the reopening on Monday, said the government would provide very clear guidance on issues such as the wearing of masks, as England moves away from using laws to govern the response to Covid.
Zahawi said the move to the final stage of reopening from 19 July was responsible, despite predictions from the health secretary, Sajid Javid, that daily infection levels could top 100,000, a record for the pandemic.
“I think it’s important that we remain cautious and careful,” he told Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday programme. “The guidelines that we will set out tomorrow will demonstrate that, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor enclosed spaces, and of course to remain vigilant.”
The comments represent a change in tone from ministers over the past week, with Boris Johnson in particular having previously stressed the significance of a move away from the government telling people what to do, towards people using their own judgment.
Zahawi said almost 87% of adults in England had received a first vaccine dose, and that 65% had had two.
The target was to double-vaccinate 66% of adults by 19 July, Zahawi said. “We will meet that target. So I am confident that we can proceed to step 4, but cautiously.
“We will be setting out tomorrow guidelines on everything from mask wearing, the transition from mandating, or government by diktat, to taking personal responsibility, whether for our own actions or corporate responsibility.”
Labour and others have called for more mitigation measures, including the wearing of masks. There are concerns over the potential impact high infection rates could have on younger people who are not yet fully vaccinated, and those who are clinically vulnerable.
Charities representing people who are particularly susceptible to Covid, or who have weakened immune systems, have also expressed concern at the end of mask laws.
Zahawi told Sky: “I think it’s important that we remain cautious and careful. The guidelines that we will set out tomorrow will demonstrate that, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor enclosed spaces, and of course to remain vigilant.
“If we all act responsibly, we can come together and deal with this pandemic in a way that is responsible by thinking about our own actions and how they impact other people, including of course people who might be immunocompromised.”
Labour’s Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, told Sky that she understood mayors Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan would make masks mandatory on trams in Manchester and the tube in London.
She said: “I hope they will and I believe, I think I’m right in saying, that Andy has already indicated that here in Manchester, that’s what he will do.
“I certainly think that having travelled regularly on both the tube and the tram all through the pandemic when I was allowed to, that wearing masks and seeing others wearing masks is a source of great reassurance and people want to do it.”
Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, a Cambridge University statistician and expert on the public understanding of risk, told the BBC that it was “absolutely inevitable” the lifting of restrictions would see a big rise in cases.
He told The Andrew Marr Show: “Frankly, you know, unless tomorrow an immediate lockdown is announced – which I think is pretty unlikely – there’s bound to be a big wave of cases coming up, absolutely inevitable. It was predictable right from the start of the road map announcement back in February.”
With daily vaccination rates trailing off and many people awaiting second doses, some reports had suggested the gap between first and second jabs, recently reduced from 12 to eight weeks, could narrow further.
But Zahawi said that while this was ultimately up to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), he did not expect it to happen.
He said: “I’m slightly puzzled where that story has come from. Obviously, I engage almost on a daily basis with my colleagues in the JCVI.
“The real-world data, the clinical data, suggests that actually the eight-week interval offers that additional fortification in terms of protection with the two doses, much better than having that interval shortened any further.”