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Boris Johnson warns against ‘throwing caution to wind’ from 19 July, as he faces flak over mask guidance

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Boris Johnson has said it is “highly probable” that the worst of the pandemic is over, but urged people to act cautiously when restrictions are lifted in England on Monday.

It comes as the prime minister faces growing criticism over “confused” guidance given to shoppers, businesses and commuters in England over the wearing of masks from 19 July.

In a speech in Coventry, Mr Johnson said: “I wish I could say that this pandemic that we have been going through is over and I wish I could say that from Monday we could simply throw caution to the winds and behave exactly as we did before we’d ever heard of Covid.”

He added: “But what I can say is that if we are careful and if we continue to respect this disease and its continuing menace then it is highly probable ... the worst of the pandemic is behind us.”

New guidance says the government still “expects” shoppers to wear masks when curbs in England end on July 19, despite no longer being required by law – a policy criticised as a “real mess” by unions and firms.

Regional mayors have urged ministers to keep masks compulsory across all public transport services in England to avoid a “ridiculous mismatch” of rules from the beginning of next week.

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford also attacked the UK government’s policy, claiming England was now an “outlier” on mask-wearing.

“I think it will be difficult for people in England to know exactly what is required of them,” Mr Drakeford said.

He claimed that it would be “clearer and simpler” if England fell into line with Wales and Scotland in keeping the legal requirement.

Mr Johnson has insisted the government had got the balance right when it came to opening up in England and the end of legal restrictions.

But the tone of UK government ministers on masks has changed in recent days. Cabinet members who had shared how keen they were to stop wearing masks are now emphasising that it is “sensible” to keep wearing them in enclosed spaces.

“There are difficult days and weeks ahead as we deal with the current wave of the Delta variant and there will be sadly more hospitalisation and more deaths – but with every day that goes by we build higher the wall of vaccine acquired immunity,” the prime minister said on Thursday.

Dr Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said businesses were “understandably confused” over “a series of mixed messages and patchwork requirements” in the latest guidance.

Communities secretary Robert Jenrick earlier denied that the rules have become a “total shambles” ahead of lockdown lifting – claiming England was moving to an era where “we all exercise our own personal judgment”.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Businesses and those people who are operating public transport networks, for example, will also make judgments about what is right for their settings. I think that is a sensible way forward.”

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