Boris Johnson tonight confirmed that the government is pulling the trigger on ‘Freedom Day’ by axing almost all legal restrictions from next Monday – despite pleading for people to keep wearing masks and not rush back to offices.
As the UK recorded another 34,471 cases, up a quarter on the same day last week, the PM warned that the pandemic is ‘not over’ but insisted the surge had been ‘foreseen’ – and the he will rely on people taking ‘personal responsibility’ for limiting spread.
Government guidance will say people are ‘expected and recommended’ to keep wearing masks in crowded places, while any return to offices this summer should only be ‘gradual’.
Ministers are also ‘encouraging’ the continued use of Covid certification at major events, saying the ‘need for caution and restraint is more important than ever’.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised about whether the rules will in reality be tougher – as the government admits train companies might well make face coverings a ‘condition of carriage’ for travel.
Labour branded the unlocking, which was delayed from the original date of June 21 due to the emergence of the Delta variant, ‘high risk’ and pointed out that Israel was recently forced to row back on some of its reopening.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing this evening: ‘It is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough: this pandemic is not over.
‘This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday July 19 to life as it was before Covid.
‘We will stick to our plan to lift legal restrictions and to lift 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.’
Mr Johnson said there is ‘no obvious date’ for ending restrictions as hospital admissions and deaths from coronavirus will rise.
‘We’ve come to a stage in the pandemic when there is no easy answer and no obvious date for unlocking,’ he said.
He was supported by chief medic Chris Whitty, who said ‘there is no such thing as an ideal date’.
The premier also highlighted that as part of the ‘cautious’ approach the government will ‘keep the test, trace and isolate system in place’ and maintain its ‘tough border policy, including quarantine for those arriving from red list countries’.
The new regime will be subject to a review in September. The go-ahead for the bonfire of legal curbs – albeit caveated – came despite Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham renewing his assault over dropping the legal requirement to wear face coverings on public transport.
Nicola Sturgeon has also criticised the PM for pushing ahead too fast, insisting masks will still be mandatory in some settings in Scotland after July 19.
Boris Johnson (pictured left) fleshed out the plans at a press briefing tonight – sending a stark message that people need to keep being careful amid spiking cases. Health Secretary Sajid Javid (right) laid out the details of Freedom Day in a statement to MPs this afternoon
This chart sets out what is expected to change from so-called ‘Freedom Day’ next Monday
What will ‘normal’ look like from July 19?
Legal rules mandating the wearing of face masks will be axed.
However, despite ministers previously saying they want to ditch coverings as soon as they are voluntary, guidance will state that they are ‘expected and recommended’ in crowded spaces.
Transport services such as the London Underground may decide to make wearing masks a condition of travel.
Private companies will be allowed to make them a requirement for entry, as Ryanair has already announced on its flights.
GOING TO PUBS
It will no longer be a legal requirement to scan a QR code on entry to a venue as part of the test and trace system. However, venues will be allowed to make use of the codes a requirement for entry if they choose.
It will also no longer be a legal requirement for pubs to require customers to order drinks at their tables. However, some pub chains may continue this – meaning that people will still not be able to go to the bar if an individual pub bans it.
The one-metre rule will be scrapped in law – meaning fewer Perspex screens in offices.
It also means hospitality businesses like pubs and restaurants won’t have to limit customers to ensure they are spaced apart. However, the one-metre rule will continue to be enforced at borders, such as in airports, amid concern over people coming into the country with variants.
There had been hopes that the requirement for the double-jabbed to self-isolate for up to 10 days when they are ‘pinged’ for coming in contact with a positive case would be dropped from July 19.
However, that date was pushed back to August 16 by Health Secretary Sajid Javid amid concerns about fueling rising infection numbers.
The rules on self-isolation for those who have not had two doses are staying in place for the time being.
However, officials are working on ways of making the NHS app less sensitive to avoid millions of people being doomed to house arrest.
And ministers have said work is ongoing on a system of daily testing that could potentially replace the self-isolation regime.
WORKING FROM HOME
The Government’s ‘work from home’ message will end and employers will be able to start to plan a return to the workplace.
But it will still be up to individual employers. Some may decide to continue with working from home for the foreseeable future.
Government advice will also be that any return to offices should be ‘gradual’ over the summer while cases are high.
Although guidance to employers will be slimmed down, it will still encourage them to ensure rooms are properly ventilated to minimise risk.
CAP ON CARE HOME VISITS
The current restriction that people can only be seen by five named visitors will be scrapped.
But strict infection-control measures – such as the wearing of PPE and regular cleaning – will continue, with more detail to be announced later.
Covid status certification – so-called vaccine passports – will not be legally required within England.
It is being left up to individual venues to decide themselves whether to demand Covid status certification through the NHS App as a condition of entry.
The government is ‘encouraging’ the use of Covid certification for large events.
RULE OF SIX
There will be no legal limits on social contact, meaning groups will not have to limit themselves to six people or two households if they are mixing indoors.
Groups outdoors can be as large as people want them to be.
WEDDING AND FUNERAL CAP
The limits on attendance at weddings, funerals and other major life events are being scrapped.
ART AND SPORT VENUE LIMITS
There will be no more restrictions on the size of an audience at a concert or a show, or a crowd at a sports fixture, which means theatres and stadiums can run at full capacity.
All other legal requirements for venues to close will be lifted, allowing night-time industries – including nightclubs – to reopen for the first time since the pandemic began.
No restrictions on singing, or even guidance to restrict it. It means singing by church choirs can continue – as can karaoke nights.
A new system to allow double-jabbed people to avoid quarantine after returning from amber-list countries comes into force from July 19.
The latest twists and turns in the Covid crisis came as:
- The government admitted nightclubs that ignore certification and pack customers up to their fire safety limit would not be breaking the law, but officials said they would ‘hope and expect’ firms to ‘behave sensibly’;
- The government is due to publish new post-July 19 guidance for people who have been shielding during the pandemic;
- The House of Commons is expected to lift restrictions on numbers in the chamber from next week, and masks will be ‘encouraged’ but not compulsory;
- Mr Javid said Tory MPs criticising hospitalisation figures because they include people in for other reasons have a ‘very good point’ and he has asked officials to look at the issue;
- Dr Susan Hopkins of PHE warned that hospitalisations could soar to 4,000 a day by the end of the summer, the same level as at the peak in January.
- Another 31,772 new Covid cases were recorded yesterday but there were signs the rate of growth is slowing and the 26 deaths recorded in the past 24 hours are a fraction of the toll seen at the peak of the pandemic.
So-called ‘Freedom Day’ is meant to herald a return to normality but the PM is also publishing new ‘guidance’ setting out precautions people should continue to take.
Mr Johnson has said that July 19 is the right time to ease coronavirus restrictions because of the ‘natural firebreak’ of the school holidays.
The Prime Minister told the Downing Street press conference: ‘We also know if we were to now delay this fourth step, for instance to September, or later, then we would be reopening as the weather gets colder and as the virus acquires a greater natural advantage and when schools are back.
‘We think now is the right moment to proceed when we have the natural firebreak of the school holidays in the next few days.’
However, the PM backed off claims that the end of Covid restrictions is ‘irreversible’ following warnings from top scientists that easing restrictions could end in disaster.
He said he ‘hoped’ that was the case, but the best way of avoiding a return to restrictions was to be cautious.
Prof Whitty said going slowly through the next step was ‘essential’ to reduce the impact of the ‘exit wave’.
He said there was wide agreement between the scientific community that the four-week delay to the final stage of the road map was important to reduce the number of people admitted to hospital and deaths.
‘Secondly, there is extremely wide agreement that whenever we go through the next step, there is going to be what’s called an exit wave – there will be a wave associated with that,’ he told a Downing Street press conference.
‘And that the slower we take it, the fewer people will have Covid, the smaller the peak will be, and the smaller the number of people who go into hospital and die.
‘So, going very slowly through this step is really essential, and this again is the overwhelming view of the scientific people who have looked at this and of the medical profession.
‘This is an overwhelming view. We should go slowly and steadily and cautiously, as the Prime Minister has laid out.’
Earlier, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said going ahead with stage four of the roadmap was a ‘step closer to the life we used to live’, adding that ‘we all want this to be a one-way journey’.
‘The case numbers will get a lot worse before they get better,’ he said. ‘But we do not believe that infection rates will put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.’
He added: ‘This is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life… To those who say ”why take this step now” I say ”if not now, when?” There will never be a perfect time to take this step.’
Nightclubs, which have been closed since the first lockdown in March last year, will be allowed to open their doors but will be encouraged to use certification to minimise the risks.
Other ‘large events’ will also be encouraged to use vaccine passports, with customers able to prove their status using the NHS app.
The Government will ‘expect and recommend’ the continued use of face masks in crowded areas and on public transport.
The return of employees to the workplace, seen as key for helping town and city centre businesses which rely on commuters, is not expected to happen overnight, with firms encouraged to take a gradual approach.
Mr Javid also warned there are no guarantees the freedoms will stay for good, saying the Government will ‘come down hard at the moment we detect a new variant’.
He reiterated that cases are rising and could reach 100,000 a day later in the summer – with the average number of daily cases currently more than 26,000, which has doubled over the past 11 days.
He said hospital admissions are also rising but said they are lower in this wave compared to a previous wave, noting people over the age of 65 – who are more likely to be double-jabbed – accounted for 31 per cent of Covid admissions last week compared to 61 per cent in January.
He went on: ‘Even as we look to ease restrictions, we will maintain tough measures at the borders and we will expand our capacity for genomic sequencing … so that we can come down hard at the moment we detect a new variant.’
The announcements were broadly welcomed by the stricken hospitality industry.
But Labour condemned the Government’s ‘high risk’ and ‘fatalistic’ approach.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Commons the Government’s plan to continue with the road map next week could lead to more mutant variants of Covid-19, likening it to the Health Secretary ‘putting his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belt off’.
Mr Ashworth said: ‘The Secretary of State has taken a high risk, indeed fatalistic, approach. Trying to guess what might happen in the winter, deciding that infections are going up anyway.
‘Instead of caution he is putting his foot down the on the accelerator while throwing the seat belt off.
‘He admits that could mean 2,000 infections a day.
SAGE says daily Covid deaths shouldn’t top 200 this autumn if people gradually return to normal life
SAGE today signed off on plans to end Covid restrictions in England next week after estimating there will be 10 times fewer deaths and half as many hospital admissions in the third wave compared to previous peaks.
Modelling by the expert group said it was realistic to expect between 100 to 200 daily fatalities and 1,000 to 2,000 hospital admissions at the worst of the current outbreak this autumn, following the unlocking on July 19.
There is a 10-fold lower risk of dying from Covid now than in the second wave because of the ‘vaccine effect’ and the fact younger people now make up the bulk of cases, SAGE revealed.
For this reason the group expects the number of daily deaths to be ‘considerably smaller’ than the 1,200 recorded in January and anticipates hospital admissions will stay ‘well below’ the 4,000 in the winter.
The forecasts were revealed as part of a tranche of documents published today ahead of the Downing Street press conference and have given No10 the confidence to press ahead with Freedom Day next Monday.
While all the modelling points towards a much smaller epidemic than previously seen, SAGE admitted its calculations were highly uncertain and warned that the crisis could quickly spiral out of control if people suddenly abandon all personal precautions on July 19.
This could lead to 12,000 admissions per day in a worst-case scenario, according to modelling by Imperial College London, headed by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, who was instrumental in the initial shutdown last spring. Modellers at the London School of Hygiene said daily deaths could surpass 500 in their gloomiest forecast.
SAGE said that the slower Britons return to normal life, the better, and have urged people to keep wear masks in crowded areas, meet friends outside where possible and isolate if they feel ill or are ‘pinged’ by the NHS contact tracing app.
The advisory panel has also signed off on the July 19 date because delaying restrictions would only push the peak back into winter, when the NHS will be wrestling with seasonal pressures.
Exactly when the third peak will happen is still not known but the experts believe it will be sometime in August. They are bracing for more than 100,000 daily infections – which would dwarf the peak of 60,000 in January.
The group is advising the Government puts ‘contingency plans’ in place so that restrictions can be quickly rolled back if the NHS starts to buckle under the pressure of an influx of admissions.
‘That means potentially thousands suffering debilitating long Covid. It means as more cases arise potentially more escape and the threat of new more transmissible variant emerging.’
Mr Ashworth warned Israel had reintroduced masks and the Netherlands had to close reopened nightclubs after two weeks.
Michael Kill, Chief Executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said: ‘The decision to go ahead with reopening on the 19th of July is the correct one. After 16 months of crippling restrictions, businesses in the night time economy are ready to play our part in the safe reopening of society. Today should mark the beginning of nightlife’s long journey to rebuild itself.’
‘There are some important hurdles ahead for our sector, including self isolation rules which have the potential to throw the recovery off course, but for those businesses that have made it this far in the pandemic, I feel confident that the sense of community and togetherness the sector has shown to this point will help us overcome these challenges.’
‘We look forward to the Government providing more guidance for businesses owners – this should be practical and easy to navigate. But from today’s statement we can say that the Government are right not to mandate the use of Covid status certification systems. Much of the night time economy relies on spontaneous consumers, and by permitting businesses to opt out, the Government have allowed for this trade to continue.’
In a round of interviews earlier, Mr Argar said it is ‘possible’ that daily coronavirus case numbers could hit the 100,000 mark but stressed that vaccines are helping to protect people from serious illness and hospital admission.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘You’ve seen the Secretary of State and others talk about between a range of 50,000 to 100,000 is possible.’
Mr Argar added: ‘If you look at hospital admissions, and forgive me if my figures are a little bit out, but the seven-day rolling average of hospital admissions for now, when we’re seeing this level of infection rate, is roughly between 350 and 400 a day.
‘Back in January, with an equivalent infection rate, we were seeing 1,800 to 2,000.
‘So you can see how that vaccine programme may not have broken it by 100 per cent because the vaccine isn’t 100 per cent effective, but it has really severely weakened that link and therefore the numbers we are going to see in hospital are going to be much smaller.’
Mr Argar defended the decision to ditch mandatory masks in England, saying train companies may well look at demanding them as a ‘condition of carriage’.
‘But at a governmental level, what we have set out, what we will be looking to do is see the legal requirements fall away but for guidance – strong guidance and cautious guidance – to be in place for people to exercise their common sense.’
Asked about former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith complaining that the stance risks creating confusion, Mr Argar replied: ‘I don’t think that the British people will struggle to look at the guidance and form their own common-sense judgment – I don’t think it will introduce confusion.
‘I think people will look at it, they will form a sensible judgment based on the guidance.’
Dr Hopkins yesterday called for people to continue following the advice beyond July 19.
‘If you are able to do your business effectively from home then I think over the next four to six weeks, as there’s a rise in cases, we should try our best to do that,’ she told Times Radio.
‘Then we should continue to look and see and have a cautious return to the office over the coming weeks, once we start to see a decline in the number of cases.’
Dr Sarah Clarke, an intensive care consultant in Blackburn and a board member of the UK’s Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, told Times Radio there was still ‘considerable pressure around the country’ in ICU.
‘I would absolutely err on the side of extreme caution,’ she said.
MPs will get one ‘normal’ PMQs before summer
MPs are set for one ‘normal’ PMQs before summer recess after Boris Johnson declared freedom day can go ahead on July 19.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle hailed a return to a ‘buzzing’ House of Commons after the ruling commission agreed that restrictions can lift next week, with masks ‘encouraged’ but not compulsory.
Covid-safe ticks and crosses on the famous green benches will be removed – while the traditional prayer cards will be back in use for reserving seats.
The move – revealed by MailOnline last week – opens the door for a full session of PMQs on July 21 for the first time since the pandemic erupted.
Before then hundreds of MPs would routinely cram into the chamber at noon on Wednesdays, but since last spring just a few dozen have been allowed to attend in person.
Currently the limit is 64 MPs, after microphones were installed in the under galleries of the House to boost participation.
Masks must be worn when members are not speaking, and there is a call list that dictates the order in which people contribute.
In a letter to MPs, Sir Lindsay wrote: ‘We are moving into an exciting new phase where we can finally begin to open up the House of Commons for business. I look forward to seeing the House buzzing again, and to welcoming back so many colleagues who we haven’t seen for many months due to the pandemic.
‘I am grateful – as I am sure all Members of the House will be – for the quick work by the House Service that has made these changes possible in response to the successful vaccination programme.’
‘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 and ‘we have over 500 patients being admitted per day into intensive cares’.
She added: ‘That’s not sustainable if we all decide to take our masks off and think that the vaccine programme no longer applies.’
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi yesterday said there would now be a clear ‘expectation’ that people should continue to wear face masks in crowded indoor settings.
He added that it is ‘important that we remain cautious’, but insisted he is ‘confident that we can proceed with this step forward’ because 87 per cent of adults have now had a first vaccine dose.
Mr Javid struck a harder line on masks in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, saying people would be ‘irresponsible’ not to wear one in a crowded space.
‘If someone is not doing that, frankly, they’re just being irresponsible, they’re not playing their role as a responsible citizen,’ he said.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith has accused ministers of ‘losing their nerve’ over the lifting of restrictions.
He said: ‘This is not freedom at all. Ministers are being beaten up by the scientists in the media and they are beginning to wobble.
‘The question for the scientists is: do they believe the vaccines work?
‘If they work – and they clearly do to reduce hospitalisations and deaths – then we should not be continuing to sacrifice the economy on the altar of some misguided zero Covid policy.’
While Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdownsceptic Tory MPs, accused ministers of a ‘shift in policy’ and said that it was ‘torturing the nation’.
Arguing that for some people wearing a mask is a ‘terrible thing’, he added: ‘It’s not fair snatching away people’s hope, it’s psychologically, profoundly destructive.’
Last week, Mr Johnson said that mask wearing would become ‘a personal choice’ after July 19.
The Prime Minister will use a Downing Street press conference this afternoon to confirm plans to end most Covid laws next Monday, despite surging cases
Health minister Edward Argar pointed to the ‘defensive wall’ being provided by vaccines. ‘If not now, when?’ he said of lifting the legal restrictions
Several senior ministers, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Environment Secretary George Eustice said they would be ditching their masks at the earliest opportunity.
But Mr Zahawi said yesterday: ‘The guidelines that we’ll set out tomorrow will demonstrate that, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor enclosed spaces.’
He also suggested the government is looking at a test and release scheme to replace self-isolation for those who come into contact with a positive case, amid fears that millions of healthy people will be doomed to house arrest as infections rise.
‘If you do test positive you have to and should rightly then self-isolate but it is important to look at that in a new context of this massive vaccination programme and make sure that it is fit for purpose for this new world,’ he said.
Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan is still considering a bid to force passengers to keep wearing masks on trains, Tube and buses in London.
The level of nerves among the wider public was demonstrated yesterday as research by Opinium found half would prefer the unlocking slated to happen a week tomorrow to be delayed.
Some 31 per cent thought the timing was about right, while just 10 per cent said it should have been earlier.
Research by Opinium found half would prefer the unlocking slated to happen a week tomorrow to be delayed