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Boris Johnson will revoke hundreds of Covid regulations and make England the most unrestricted society in Europe from 19 July despite saying new cases could soar to 50,000 a day before masks and social distancing are ditched.
In a sign the government may reimpose restrictions this autumn, the prime minister warned the public against going “de-mob happy”, however. He said opening up – including the lifting of all limits on sports events and nightclubs – would be safest during the school summer holidays and did not say the changes would be irreversible.
Johnson told a Downing Street press conference: “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, we must ask ourselves: when will we be able to return to normal?”
He said the aim in revoking the rules was to “move from a universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility” but added: “Obviously, if we do find another variant that doesn’t respond to the vaccines, if, heaven forbid, some really awful new bugs should appear, then clearly we will have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public.”
The planned changes announced by Johnson on Monday are set to make England an outlier in much of the rest of the world where restrictions remain to combat infections. The so-called “big bang” reopening was described as reckless by Labour and the dropping of the legal requirement for masks prompted a backlash from bereaved families and regional mayors.
Businesses that chose to enforce mask-wearing would need to take legal advice on their responsibilities under the Equality Act, Downing Street said.
The only remaining regulations will be a requirement to isolate after testing positive for Covid-19, plus restrictions on international travel and mandatory social distancing at airports and other ports. Directors of public health will also retain some powers to act in a crisis situation.
Johnson also announced an acceleration in vaccinating the under-40s, who will have the gap between doses cut from 12 weeks to eight in line with the over-40s. This means every adult will have been offered two jabs by mid-September. There will no longer be any specific recommendation to work from home, and restrictions on the number of named care home visitors will be lifted.
The final decision to scrap the remaining restrictions will be made next week but Johnson said this was the firm direction of travel. Plans will also be announced this week allowing those who have been double-vaccinated to avoid quarantine rules when contacted by NHS test and trace or on their return from amber-list countries, although the start dates for these measures are yet to be revealed.
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, told the Commons that schools should expect to stop sending home “bubbles” of children from 19 July, in time for many children’s summer holiday camps.
Standing alongside the prime minister, England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, warned that the epidemic was “significant and rising”. While hospitalisations were increasing, modelling suggested the health service would be able to handle the pressures, Whitty said.
“What the modelling would imply is that we will reach that peak before we get to the point where we have the kind of pressures we saw in January of this year. But inevitably, with all models you have to say that there’s some degree of uncertainty,” he said.
He said he expected this coming winter “may be very difficult for the NHS and I don’t think that’s a particularly controversial statement,” saying the health service would face the additional pressures of flu and waiting lists.
No 10 sources said contingency measures to deal with a significant rise in infections in the autumn would depend on booster jabs and surge testing and include the possibility of a wider use of Covid passports for mass events. “The aim is to avoid any repeat of the kind of restrictions we have seen for the past year,” a source said.
Ministers will hold on to powers to “reimpose economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level” if needed to suppress a dangerous new variant, according to a Whitehall document published on Monday.
Those measures would be a “last resort to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS,” the government said. It also said Covid status certificates could be introduced in the autumn or winter “if the country is facing a difficult situation” as a means of keeping events going and businesses open.
Keir Starmer called Johnson’s announcement “party management, not the public interest”. Johnson’s former adviser turned chief critic Dominic Cummings said the prime minister was in “‘let it rip’ mode”.
NHS representatives also reacted angrily. Jude Diggins, an interim director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: “This disease does not disappear on 19 July. No available vaccine is 100% effective … Public mask-wearing is straightforward and well-established – government will regret the day it sent the wrong signal for political expediency.”
But Tory MPs heralded the change, shouting “hallelujah” in the House of Commons.
The government announced a further 27,334 UK Covid cases on Monday, with nine deaths within 28 days of a positive test. The chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the data showed that vaccines had “weakened the link between cases and hospitalisation … [it’s] not a completely broken link”.
Johnson, Vallance and Whitty all said they would continue to wear their masks in crowded spaces or if asked by others, as opposition to the move mounted from regional mayors and trade unions.
Scientists advising the government also sounded alarm. Prof Calum Semple, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was essential that people took responsibility themselves if no guidelines were in place. “It’ll be for the silent and sensible majority to take the lead,” he said.
Prof John Drury, a member of a subgroup to Sage, said the opening up was a clear signal that high infection rates would be the price of freedom. “It’s a political choice about the extent to which it’s OK that some people get very ill,”he said.
Labour said lifting all restrictions would leave millions of people who have not had both jabs, including children, susceptible to long Covid. Starmer called for a rethink. “We all want the restrictions to be lifted. We are going to have to find a way of living with the virus. But that can’t just be a soundbite. We need a proper plan and to throw off all protections at the same time, when the infection rate is still going up is reckless. We need a balanced approach.”