British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday confirmed that all legal COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, including the mandatory wearing of face masks, will come to an end on July 19, paving the way for people to make their own decisions about which safety guidelines to follow.
Johnson said a final decision will be made next Monday based on the latest community infections and hospitalisations data, but effectively people will no longer be expected to work from home where possible and will no longer be legally required to wear face masks.
Addressing a virtual Downing Street press conference, Johnson acknowledged the divided views on lifting all lockdown restrictions to declare that his update does not imply that the pandemic “is over”.
But if things can’t be reopened in the next few weeks when vaccinations are offering greater protection, then “we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal”.
“The alternative is to reopen in winter when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all,” Johnson said, adding that the vaccination programme has broken the link between infections and hospitalisations.
“We run the risk of either opening up at a difficult time… or putting everything off until next year,” he said.
Johnson indicated that some additional safety measures may be needed in the winter months but stressed that the “heavy emphasis” will be placed on “strengthened guidance” rather than rules and lockdowns.
“It will depend on the circumstances. We are trying to move from government diktat to personal responsibility… but it is important to remember the value of face coverings,” he said when asked if he would continue wearing a face mask once the legal requirements are lifted.
Earlier on Monday, Downing Street had confirmed Johnson’s planned announcement on the last stage of England’s lockdown roadmap to give businesses and the public time to prepare for the July 19 timeline.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid will announce the plans to Parliament. The government said its plans will be data-driven and will be confirmed next Monday on July 12, following a review of the latest coronavirus infections and hospitalisations statistics.
Johnson has said that he wants the last stage of the lockdown roadmap to be “irreversible” and has previously dubbed July 19 as “terminus day”.
“Thanks to the successful rollout of our vaccination programme, we are progressing cautiously through our roadmap. Today we will set out how we can restore people’s freedoms when we reach step 4,” he said.
“But I must stress that the pandemic is not over and that cases will continue to rise over the coming weeks. As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from COVID and exercise judgement when going about our lives,” he said.
Downing Street said the latest data from Public Health England shows that COVID vaccines are highly effective against severe illness and hospitalisation from the Delta variant, first detected in India. The analysis suggests the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 96 per cent effective, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine 92 per cent effective against hospitalisation after two doses.
As of this Monday, there were 27,714 new positive cases in England, with 331 people were admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 and there were 1,611 patients in the hospital.
The latest Office for National Statistics estimates show that one in 260 people have COVID-19 in England. The government admitted that the latest data and scientific modelling suggest that cases will continue to rise as restrictions are eased, but the link to hospitalisations and deaths has been weakened due to the vaccination programme.
The UK PM confirmed the rules around the current one-metre plus social distancing requirements, face coverings, and working from home, based on the findings of the social distancing and certification review.
Johnson reiterated that COVID will become a virus that “we learn to live with as we already do with flu”, which means that hospitalisations, serious illness and deaths from COVID will continue, albeit at a much lower level than before the vaccination programme.
“To continue to receive the best possible protection against COVID, all adults are encouraged to get two vaccine doses. As of 4 July, over 78 million vaccine doses have now been administered in the UK, and 63.4 per cent of adults have received two doses,” Downing Street said.
The government is also making preparations to offer third ‘booster’ doses to everyone aged over 50 and the most vulnerable to boost their immunity over the winter months, based on interim advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
“Our red list border control regime, surge testing, community testing and genome sequencing are effective ways of finding and isolating new cases of variants and will continue to be deployed,” Downing Street added.
It was widely expected that all restrictions would be lifted and people urged to exercise their personal judgment on aspects such as face masks and social distancing in gatherings. Some doctors’ groups and scientists have called for compulsory face masks in enclosed settings to continue beyond July 19 while infection rates continue to rise.
The UK government was set to lift all lockdown restrictions previously on June 21 but delayed the timeline by four weeks to allow further vaccinations amid rising infections from the Delta variant of COVID-19.
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