The return to normality could only last for weeks amid the surge in Delta variant cases, Government scientists warned as Boris Johnson told Britons not to get ‘demob happy’ amid a relaxation of restrictions.
The Prime Minister signalled a ‘big bang’ end to lockdown on July 19, saying it was now or never for a return to normality, as he acknowledged the pandemic was ‘far from over’ and that daily Covid cases could top 50,000 by ‘Freedom Day’ in a fortnight.
He claimed further delay would run the risk of trying to reopen in autumn or winter when ‘the virus has an edge’.
And in a downbeat assessment, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said that even if hospitalisations and deaths remained low, there were major risks in letting cases surge.
The group warned that should a ‘variant of concern’ arrive that threatened immunity, lockdown restrictions would need to reimposed for much longer.
In newly-released documents which advised on controlling the virus long-term, Sage warned that some ‘baseline measures’ may have to stay, with ‘sustained behavioural change’ necessary.
And at a sombre Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson warned against going ‘demob happy’ at the ending of most coronavirus restrictions on July 19.
And he toned down previous pledges that the path out of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’ – with restrictions potentially returning. A final decision on whether to press ahead on July 19 will be taken at the start of next week but seems almost certain to be approved.
Mr Johnson said the vaccine programme was continuing to be a success and retaining restrictions would ‘inevitably take their toll on people’s lives and livelihoods – on people’s health and mental health’.
Dropping the curbs will mean the end of all legal limits on socialising, which have wrecked family gatherings for 16 months, and the scrapping of social distancing rules that have hobbled pubs, restaurants and the arts.
In other developments:
- The gap between vaccine doses was cut from 12 weeks to eight for the under-40s to give more people the protection of a second jab;
- Britain recorded another 27,334 cases of the virus, but only nine more Covid-related deaths;
- London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he would work with transport providers to keep mask rules in place;
- An official review of social distancing warned keeping the ‘economically disruptive’ one metre-plus rule in place would constrain the recovery;
- Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the requirement to isolate entire school classes and years would end on July 19;
- Mr Johnson said the cap on the number who can visit loved ones in care homes would be scrapped;
- The PM said he hoped to lift quarantine restrictions on fully vaccinated holidaymakers returning from amber list countries – but did not say when;
- Downing Street said social distancing would remain in airports, amid concerns about the virus spreading in arrival halls;
- Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel, 48, was admitted to hospital in a ‘serious but stable’ condition with Covid, despite having been vaccinated
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty
Sir Patrick Vallance Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England, Chris Whitty, attend Downing Street Covid press conference
Experts said self-isolation when ill would remain ‘critical’ and working from home was a ‘highly effective’ long-term option. And in a grim sign that Britons face a return of some curbs in the near future, Sage added: ‘Stronger measures may be desirable for autumn and winter.’
Cases on rise but ‘the NHS will cope’
The NHS will meet the challenge of rising Covid cases and ‘learn to live with’ the virus, health leaders insisted yesterday.
Professor Chris Whitty said that there is likely to be a surge in hospital admissions as Britain unlocks and the health service will also face a ‘very tricky winter’. But he added that the NHS ‘will cope with anything’.
There are currently 1,905 Covid-19 patients in NHS hospitals. This is double the number of one month ago, but down from a peak of almost 40,000 in January. Professor Whitty said hospital admissions could reach ‘quite high numbers’ but are unlikely to be as bad as previous waves.
Latest data shows infections are up 53 per cent in a week and yesterday another 27,335 cases and nine deaths were recorded in the UK.
NHS England’s medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: ‘We’re well used to coping with pressures. We are prepared and, as you have seen over the last 18 months of the pandemic, the NHS will manage.’
Mr Johnson’s decision to defy gloomy warnings from scientists and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was warmly cheered by business chiefs and Conservative MPs.
However there was confusion over quarantine for summer holidays, the end of mandatory mask wearing and the future of working from home.
Mr Johnson’s leading scientific advisers appeared cautious at the press conference, with chief medical officer Chris Whitty saying the third Covid wave was ‘significant and rising’.
Sage scientific advisers published documents saying there was a ‘significant risk’ in allowing cases to rise – and that restrictions might need to return this winter. And in a sign that the political consensus over Covid was fracturing, Sir Keir branded Mr Johnson’s announcement ‘reckless’.
At last night’s briefing, Mr Johnson warned cases were predicted to rise to 50,000 a day later this month and that ‘we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid’.
But he declared: ‘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?’
He said a further delay would ‘run the risk of either opening up at a very difficult time when the virus has an edge’ in the autumn or winter or ‘putting everything off to next year’.
Chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance said Covid cases were doubling every nine days and hospitalisations were also rising, albeit at a slower rate. ‘The vaccines have weakened the link, not broken it,’ he said. Both he and Professor Whitty said they would continue to wear face masks in busy settings. Professor Whitty acknowledged there were ‘some advantages’ to reopening in the summer and Downing Street denied a claim from Dominic Cummings that the Prime Minister had overruled his scientific advisers.
In a bold shift despite daily Covid cases rising a fifth in a week to 27,000, Boris Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that the government will no longer issue ‘top down’ orders after July 19 and people must use their common sense to manage the risks
Boris Johnson pushed the button on a ‘big bang’ Freedom Day unlocking tonight with social distancing rules, mask laws and the work from home order set to go
Time for the bar! From table service to working from home, those changing rules
Boris Johnson tonight firmed up plans for unlocking England on July 19.
The PM used a press conference to confirm a bonfire of virus rules and restrictions from the so-called Freedom Day, saying individuals will again be able to judge the risks of coronavirus for themselves.
However, he did not have any decisive announcements in key areas, with no date for quarantine requirements to be waived for double-jabbed Brits travelling to ‘amber list’ countries.
There was also no confirmation that self-isolation can be replaced with testing for the fully-vaccinated.
And although there was a clear intention for bubble rules in schools to be axed, it is not expected to happen until September when the new term starts.
WHAT THE PM ANNOUNCED:
Pubs and restaurants
Hospitality venues in England will no longer be required to collect track and trace data from July 19. Businesses won’t have to ask customers to scan a QR code using the NHS phone app on entry or to hand over their contact details, although they will have the option of continuing to do so if they wish. Mandatory table service rules will also be scrapped, meaning drinkers will be able to order at the bar again in pubs.
Wearing masks will become voluntary everywhere apart from hospitals and other health facilities from July 19 in England. Public transport passengers, shoppers and those visiting pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres will no longer be required by law to cover up. However, people may still be encouraged to wear masks in some enclosed places where they come into close contact with each other, for example on London Tube trains.
Work from home
The official guidance telling people to ‘work from home if you can’ will be scrapped on July 19 in England. But it will be left up to employers and their staff to decide whether they have to go back to their desks. Ministers will not launch a campaign encouraging staff back to the office and are resigned to there not being a mass return to workplaces this summer.
AND WHAT THE PM DIDN’T ANNOUNCE
Ministers have been working on a system to open up holiday destinations for double-jabbed Britons.
People who have had both vaccine doses could no longer have to quarantine for ten days after visiting amber list countries, such as Spain, France and Greece.
However, there is not set to be any definitive news on the rules tonight and Government sources have cautioned the July 19 date is ‘ambitious’.
TEST AND TRACE
Pressure has been growing for people who have received both coronavirus vaccine doses to be spared isolating at home for ten days if they have come into contact with someone who tested positive.
They could be offered lateral flow tests to do themselves at home instead.
However, ministers have not come to a conclusion on whether to go ahead, and it is understood a new system is very unlikely to be in place for July 19.
The bubbles system that has seen whole classes or year groups sent home if just one pupil tests positive for coronavirus will be scrapped in England.
Ministers are planning to announce a new way of handling outbreaks.
Instead of sending children home en masse, those who have come into contact with a positive case are likely to be given daily tests.
Few expect the arrangements to start until the new school year in September, although Sajid Javid sparked confusion by telling MPs tonight that it could happen on July 19.
A Whitehall source said last night: ‘The majority view among the scientists is in favour. Yes there are some noises off in the media, but they are in a minority position.’
As Mr Javid set out the unlocking measures in the Commons some Conservative MPs shouted ‘hallelujah’.
Former chief whip Mark Harper said it was ‘great to see Cabinet ministers now publicly saying what my Covid Recovery Group colleagues and I have been saying for ages – there will never be zero risk from Covid’.
The senior Tory MP added: ‘Let’s not squander our world-class rollout of effective vaccines.’
Shevaun Haviland, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that although more detail was needed, the announcement was ‘a much-needed step on the road to normality and we welcome the Prime Minister setting out the direction of travel in advance of reopening’.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, which represents the leisure and hospitality sector, said: ‘The Prime Minister’s announcement marks a major milestone in how England will come to live with Covid and will be celebrated by hospitality business owners and their staff across the country.’
But Sir Keir suggested elements of the lockdown should continue, saying: ‘To throw off all protections at the same time, when the infection rate is going up, is reckless.’
Despite the removal of legal restrictions, some fear Government guidance could still muddy the waters in some areas. Pubs and restaurants will no longer be required to collect contact details by law to help contact tracing. But No 10 said it hoped most would continue to do so.
Government advice on working from home also left some disappointed. While the formal advice will be dropped, the Prime Minister said it would be up to employers to decide how and when staff should return.
There are no plans for a back-to-work push by government of the kind seen last summer.
At a press conference last night chief medical officer Chris Whitty said some social distancing would still be required beyond July 19.
In a sign of his concern, he said the epidemic was ‘clearly significant and rising’ and emphasised that decisions were ‘made by ministers, not by scientific advisers or medical advisers’.
He added: ‘Within the scientific views on this, there was a really clear consensus that under all circumstance some degree of further social distancing needs to be maintained even after the restrictions are lifted in law.’
It suggests Boris Johnson’s plan to lift all restrictions on July 19 may be at odds with the views of some of his scientific advisers, although Downing Street insists most of the PM’s advisers back his approach. Sage said there were ‘many advantages’ to keeping infections down even with low hospitalisation and death rates.
It said: ‘It makes it easier to prevent a return to rapid growth in the epidemic which could lead to the NHS being overwhelmed.
‘Lower infection rates will also reduce impact of post-Covid syndromes and allow more NHS capacity to be used for routine care. There is significant risk in allowing prevalence to rise, even if hospitalisations and deaths are kept low by vaccination.
‘If it were necessary to reduce prevalence to low levels again (eg. because of a new variant of concern) then restrictive measures would be required for much longer.’
Infections are currently at the highest level since January, and Mr Johnson acknowledged they are likely to reach 50,000 a day within a fortnight and that hospitalisations and deaths will keep rising.
He said: ‘I don’t want people to feel this the end of Covid – it is very far from the end.’ Officials have consistently said there can be no complete return to pre-pandemic life after July 19.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said people must change their behaviour in light of rising cases. He said: ‘We are in the face of an increasing epidemic at the moment and therefore we need to behave accordingly.’
One Sage document assessing what long-term or ‘baseline’ measures will be needed after July 19 said: ‘Keeping some level of measures in place both through summer and beyond would significantly decrease ongoing transmission.’
It concluded that ongoing measures and sustained long-term behavioural change will be required to control a resurgence in infections – particularly in the winter.
The scientists said self-isolation ‘needs to become routine’ for anyone with symptoms, quarantine after international travel is ‘important’ and local measures, potentially including lockdowns, will be needed ‘in all scenarios’.
They also concluded that working from home is highly effective at cutting the spread and recommended ongoing physical distancing and the use of masks.
The Chief Medical Officer said hospitals could be in for a ‘very difficult’ period over the colder months as they grapple with spikes in Covid and flu admissions, as well as the normal winter pressures.
Professor Whitty said: ‘The winter is inevitably going to be tricky and the NHS is likely to have both Covid and some resurgence of other respiratory viruses that were suppressed by the degree of lockdown last time round.
Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick both suggested they would wear masks on crowded rail services even after July 19
‘So I think we should be realistic and this coming winter may be very difficult for the NHS.’
Asked directly if Covid restrictions could go into reverse, Mr Johnson said he would ‘have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public’.
It came despite the PM previously promising the roadmap out of lockdown would be ‘irreversible’.
Professor Whitty admitted that SAGE was still split over whether the final stage of the roadmap should go ahead because the epidemic is still growing.
But he warned that delaying the reopening any further could push the the third wave into the winter and cause an even larger peak.
The CMO acknowledged there was a ‘mixed’ view among scientists on the timing of lifting restrictions, and that he had ‘quite a strong view’ that doing so in summer has advantages over autumn.
He said: ‘The view is more mixed about exactly what the right timing is from a technical point of view, even before you get into issues that the Prime Minister has to deal with more widely.
‘And these really come from the fact that at a certain point, you move to the situation where instead of actually averting hospitalisations and deaths, you move over to just delaying them.
‘So you’re not actually changing the number of people who will go to hospital or die, you may change when they happen.
‘And there is quite a strong view by many people, including myself actually, that going in the summer has some advantages, all other things being equal, to opening up into the autumn when schools are going back and when we’re heading into the winter period when the NHS tends to be under greatest pressure for many other reasons.
‘So it’s a very much more difficult technical decision now, even before ministers have to grapple with all the other things, than it was in terms of the four-week delay where I think there was a very substantial degree of scientific agreement.’
Both Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, No10’s chief scientific adviser are among those arguing that ‘if not now then when’.
The new normal! Face masks, distancing, socialising and isolation… everything you need to know about our post-lockdown rules
by DAILY MAIL REPORTER
WHAT IS BEING AXED ON JULY 19?
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.
WHAT IS STAYING AFTER JULY 19?
The system will not be stood down because the Prime Minister believes it will be essential to help manage Covid outbreaks in future.
Keeping the system means people can still be contacted if they have been in proximity to a Covid sufferer.
Guidance will back venues scanning customers in to help support contact tracing.
Contact tracing will not be stood down because the Prime Minister believes it will be essential to help manage future Covid outbreaks. (Stock image)
WHAT WILL BE ONLY GUIDANCE NOT LAW?
Legal rules mandating the wearing of face masks will be axed.
However, guidance will state that people should wear them in hospitals and care homes as well as in ‘crowded public spaces’.
It will also suggest that people should wear masks in places where cases are rising.
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.
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.
And 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 in domestic settings.
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.
WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR DETAILS ON?
A new system to allow double-jabbed people to avoid quarantine after returning from amber-list countries does not yet have a start date.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is working with the travel industry to introduce the scheme, with more details due later this week.
It could begin on July 19 – but possibly not until August 2.
A new system to allow double-jabbed people to avoid quarantine after returning from amber-list countries does not yet have a start date. Pictured: Passengers arrive to Heathrow Airport
Ministers want to scrap the need for double-jabbed people to self-isolate if they are contacted by test and trace, or ‘pinged’ by the NHS app.
A decision will be announced later this week, although it is not clear when such a system might come into effect.
The rules could also be changed for children.
The Government wants to scrap the requirement to send a whole class home if one pupil tests positive – and to replace the ‘bubbles’ system with testing.
Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, will announce details today.
Schools are not expected to be asked to bring in a new system until next term.
A final decision on whether all the above changes will be implemented is not expected to be announced until next Monday, July 12.
They will only go ahead if the Government deems the country has met its ‘four tests’.
Boris Johnson said yesterday he would do ‘everything possible’ to stop restrictions being re-imposed in the future.
ALSO: ROLLOUT OF VACCINES
The gap between first and second vaccines for the under-40s will be shortened from 12 weeks to eight to help ensure that everyone can be doubled jabbed by September.