Prime Minister accused of ‘gambling with lives’ over plans to lift mask-wearing and social distancing despite rapid rise in Covid-19 cases
Case numbers of Covid-19 are rising fast and millions of people have still not been vaccinated - but the Prime Minister has announced that mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing will be lifted on July 19.
Boris Johnson indicated that the public will be advised to use its judgment over when to wear masks, which have been shown to play an important role in reducing the transmission of the virus.
Union leaders accused the PM of “gambling with lives”and pursuing a “gung ho” strategy.
There was acknowledgement at a Downing Street press conference that Covid-19 deaths would continue to rise - but at a much lower level than before the vaccination programme.
Mr Johnson acknowledged the pandemic was “far from over” with cases rising “fairly rapidly”.
“There could be 50,000 cases detected per day by the 19th,” he said.
“We are seeing rising hospital admissions and we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.
“In these circumstances we must take a careful and a balanced decision – and there’s only one reason why we contemplate going ahead to Step 4 in circumstances where we would normally be locking down further and that’s because of the continuing effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.”
He added: “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.
“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?”
The so-called “freedom day” is expected on July 19, although the final decision on whether to proceed will be taken a week earlier.
Enacting Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown will mean:
- No limits on social contact, meaning the end of the orders such as the “rule of six” and restrictions on guests at weddings and mourners at funerals.
- A lifting of the legal requirement to wear face coverings, although guidance will suggest people might choose to do so in “enclosed and crowded places”.
- All remaining businesses will be able to reopen, including nightclubs, while capacity caps will be lifted and bars and restaurants will no longer be restricted to table service.
- The government will no longer instruct people to work from home.
- The “one metre plus” rule on social distancing will be lifted except in specific circumstances such as at the border, where guidance will remain to keep passengers from red and amber list countries from mingling with other travellers.
- The limit on named care home visitors will be lifted but infection control measures will remain in place.
- There will be no compulsory use of Covid status certification – so-called domestic vaccine passports – although firms will be able to voluntarily use the system.
- The gap between vaccine doses for under-40s will be reduced from 12 weeks to eight, meaning that all adults will have the opportunity to be double-jabbed by mid-September.
The legal requirement to self-isolate will remain for people who have tested positive or been identified as a contact by NHS Test and Trace.
But Mr Johnson wants contacts who are fully vaccinated to be exempt and the government has pledged to set out further details in due course.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps is expected to give an update later this week on plans to remove the need for fully vaccinated arrivals from amber list countries to isolate, while education secretary Gavin Williamson will set out his plans for schools amid concern about the impact of the bubble system.
The government’s decisions - announced this afternoon - prompted incredulity among some.
Software developer Rachel Coleman, a cancer survivor from Cambridge, tweeted: “I'm so angry; the current wave of cases was avoidable by delaying Step 3, but no. Mask rules on public transport / indoors protect everyone, like smoking bans protect everyone, but we're not getting that either.
“Leaving masks/distancing/ventilation up to ‘personal responsibility’ puts my unvaccinated children at risk from every irresponsible person in an indoor space with them. So we’ll end up living more restricted lives than before, out of self-defence.”
Cab Davidson, also from Cambridge, was unconvinced by evasive answers on how many extra deaths would be caused by the lifting of such restrictions.
“Note how no one answered the question on how many more deaths today’s measures will cause. They have modelled it. They do have a range that they're expecting. But they're unwilling to tell you.”
Others commented on how individuals may be required to use public transport if their employers demand they return to the office, but would not have the safeguard of knowing that other passengers will take personal responsibility for wearing masks.
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes accused Boris Johnson of “gambling with lives”and pursuing a “gung ho” strategy while admitting that the pandemic was far from over.
The union leader said: “We are still very much in a pandemic, something that the scientists in Downing Street recognise, even if the Prime Minister seems not to. Opening up on this scale while infection rates are rising is simply gambling with lives.
“Johnson risks the virus mutating into variants which may become resistant to the current vaccines by taking a gung ho approach to the relaxation of restrictions.
“Let’s not forget that throughout Europe where restrictions have been relaxed the requirement to wear a mask in enclosed public settings remains. Just look at Gibraltar whose vaccination record is second to none and has rightly been praised by the government here.
“When it comes to public transport Johnson’s mixed messaging is the worst of all worlds. He wants to ditch masks but would still wear one if on a busy train. That hardly provides the certainty our industry and the public so badly need.”
In Cambridge, cases have spiralled in recent weeks as the Delta variant spreads.
In the seven days to June 30, there were 422 cases, 222 up (111 per cent) on the previous week, taking the infection rate to 338.1 cases per 100,000 people.
The University of Cambridge has detected a significant increase among its student population.
Walk-in vaccination clinics have been set up throughout Cambridgeshire to drive up vaccination rates, which official data suggests are lower in Cambridge than anywhere in the East of England.
Everyone over 18 is eligible for a Covid-19 jab, and the period you need to wait between receiving the first and second jabs has been brought down for all from 12 weeks to eight weeks.