Boris Johnson has said it is “highly probable” the worst of the pandemic is over provided people are careful when lockdown restrictions end in England next week.
The Prime Minister urged people not to “throw caution to the winds” as ministers were forced to deny the Covid rules had become a “total shambles”.
The latest Government guidance says shoppers will still be expected to wear face masks and table service should continue in pubs and bars, even though it will no longer be a statutory requirement from Monday.
The move has been widely criticised by both trade unions and employers, with ministers accused of sending out “mixed messages” while giving businesses little time to prepare the new regime.
In a speech in Coventry, Mr Johnson said the success of the vaccination programme meant they could go ahead with the final reopening of the economy, although he acknowledged there would be some “difficult days” to come.
“If we are careful and if we continue to respect this disease and its continuing menace then it is highly probable – almost all the scientists are agreed on this – the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” he said.
“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.”
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said the UK Government is an “outlier” and that it would be better if England followed Scotland and Wales in continuing to make masks compulsory.
However, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick defended the Government’s strategy, insisting it was right to allow individuals and businesses to make their own judgments about what precautions to take.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if the policy has become a “total shambles”, he replied: “No, I don’t accept that.
“As a result of the vaccine rollout we are able to move into a new phase and that’s one where we all exercise our own personal judgment.
“But also 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.”
The latest figures from Test and Trace showed 194,005 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to July 7, up 43% on the previous week and the highest total since the week to January 27.
Guidance issued on Wednesday said the Government “expects and recommends” masks to be worn by workers and customers in crowded, enclosed spaces as the work-from-home order ends.
Table service is recommended to continue in bars, while pubs, restaurants and nightclubs are encouraged to check vaccine and testing status as a condition of entry through the NHS Covid Pass.
On Thursday Public Health England said staff, patients and visitors in all NHS settings must continue to wear face coverings and observe social distancing from July 19.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council also said officers would continue to wear masks, while supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Tesco said they would encourage their customers to do so.
The Labour metro mayors for West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, North of Tyne, West of England and South Yorkshire said they will require mask use on public transport networks where their limited powers allow it.
London mayor Sadiq Khan has said he will use his greater powers to enforce the wearing of masks on the capital’s transport network as a “condition of carriage”.
The TUC has said the Government’s guidance is a “recipe for chaos and rising infections”, while shopworkers union Usdaw said it is a “real mess” offering no assurances for staff or customers.
Dr Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said firms are “understandably confused” by the Government’s “mixed messages and patchwork requirements”.
Mr Drakeford said it is “difficult” for people in England to know exactly what is required of them and he urged the Government at Westminster to stick to a four-nation approach.
“It is the UK Government that is the outlier and if they were prepared to bring themselves into line with the decisions that have been made in Scotland and in Wales, for example, that would be clearer and simpler for everybody,” he told Good Morning Britain.
Meanwhile, Mr Jenrick said the Government is “concerned” about the number of people off work as a result of being “pinged” by the NHS Covid app, with some companies reportedly missing 20% of their staff.
He told LBC radio: “It is important that we have the app, that we take it seriously, that when we do get those messages we act accordingly. But we are going to give further thought to how we can ensure it is a proportionate response.”