The wearing of face coverings will no longer be legally required and social distancing rules will be largely scrapped this month, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced. The 'rule of six' for gatherings inside private homes will also be removed and work-from-home guidance abolished.
Subject to a final review of coronavirus data next week, these and other legal restrictions brought in to mitigate COVID-19 in England will end on Monday 19 July, the Prime Minister announced during a press conference 10 Downing Street.
Johnson used the address to signal his desire to end the use of “government diktat” to manage people’s lives. Instead, he said the onus will now be on people’s personal judgement will now be key in learning to live with the virus.
The Prime Minister admitted that there is expected to be a rise in coronavirus infections when restrictions are eased. However, the government hopes that the high take-up of COVID-19 vaccinations will limit hospitalisations and deaths.
The rules being scrapped
The relaxation of coronavirus rules will see changes including the wearing face coverings no longer being legally required in shops, schools, hospitality, or on public transport. However, guidance will be in place to suggest where people might choose to wear one, such as where they come into contact with people they do not usually meet in enclosed and crowded places.
Following government reviews into social distancing and Covid-status certification, the 1-metre plus rule will be lifted other than in specific places such as at the border to help manage the risks of new variants coming into the country.
The guidance to work from home where possible will also end, to allow employers to start planning a safe return to workplaces.
Limits on social contact will end, meaning there will be no restrictions on indoor or outdoor gatherings. Weddings, funerals and other life events able to take place without limits or restrictions. All venues currently closed will be allowed to reopen, including nightclubs, and there will be no legal requirement for table service in hospitality settings. Council powers to enforce coronavirus rules will expire.
There will be no legal requirement on the use of Covid-status certification as a condition of entry for visitors to any domestic setting.
The cap on the number of named visitors for care home residents will be removed from the current maximum of five per resident, although infection prevention and control measures will remain in place to protect the most vulnerable.
Stepping up vaccination
The rapid and wide roll-out of COVID vaccines that have weakened the link between contracting the virus and serious illness or death is key to the government’s decision to reduce restrictions.
Over 79 million vaccine doses have now been administered in the UK, with every adult having been offered at least one dose, and 64% of adults have received two doses. The government now intends to accelerate the roll-out by reducing the vaccine dose interval for under 40s from 12 weeks to 8, which will mean every adult has the chance to have two doses by mid-September.
NHS Test and Trace will continue have a role in managing the virus, but Johnson signalled the government’s intention to move to a new regime whereby fully vaccinated people would no longer need to self-isolate if identified as a contact.
The PM’s case for unlocking
The ending of covid restrictions in England forms step 4 of the roadmap in which the Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out how life will soon return close to normal. The lifting of Covid restrictions was originally planned to be on 21 June, but this was pushed back to 19 July after a rise in infections driven by the Delta variant.
Soeaking at 10 Downing Street, Johnson said: “So, as we come to the fourth step, we have to balance the risks. The risks of the disease which the vaccines have reduced but very far from eliminated. And the risks of continuing with legally enforced restrictions that inevitably take their toll on people’s lives and livelihoods – on people’s health and mental health. And 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?
“And to those who say we should delay again; the alternative is to open up in the winter when the virus will have an advantage or not at all this year. And so again without pre-empting the decision on 12 July, let me set out today our five-point plan for living with Covid in the hope that it will give families and businesses time to prepare.”
The Prime Minister said that learning to live with the virus meant cases would continue to rise significantly. The hope is that the vaccination programme will mean hospitalisations and deaths will rise at a lower level than during previous peaks. Johnson set out how cases could rise to 50,000 per day by 19 July, with daily hospital admissions and deaths also rising although more slowly.
However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer responded to the Prime Minister’s plan by saying that “lifting all protections in one go, when the infection rate is going up, is reckless”. Starmer said there is a case for keeping the use of masks in enclosed spaces and on public transport. “A balanced approach or proper plan would say keep protections,” he added.
Further announcements due
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will be providing an update on new measures for schools and colleges later this week. These measures will aim to minimise disruption to education but maintain protection for children.
Proof of vaccination or a negative test will still be required for international travel, with the Prime Minister confirming that the Transport Secretary will provide an update later this week on removing the need for fully vaccinated arrivals from an amber country to isolate.
A further 27,334 cases were reported across the UK on Monday, alongside another nine deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in charge of their own coronavirus rules. The Scottish Government has said it may continue to require masks in certain settings even after 9 August, when it is hoped the final curbs will end.
Ahead of a review on 15 July in Wales, ministers said people would need to learn to live with Covid. Rules in Northern Ireland have just eased, with another review due on 8 July.
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