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Boris Johnson has been accused of sending “mixed messages” after confirming the end of lockdown restrictions in England next Monday while urging people not to indulge in “a great jubilee of freedom from any kind of caution and restraint”.
In an announcement which was far from the long-anticipated declaration of “Freedom Day”, Mr Johnson cautioned that life cannot simply go back to normal on 19 July, warning: “This pandemic is not over.”
While legal requirements on the use of face-coverings and social distancing will be lifted, people will be expected to keep using them in enclosed public spaces, such as on buses and trains. And while the government is dropping instructions to work from home where possible, Mr Johnson said he did not expect a rush back to the office on Monday, calling for a “gradual return to work” over the summer.
There was confusion over whether pubs and restaurants could be caught in a voluntary scheme for nightclubs and other large venues to check revellers’ Covid status before admission.
Official guidance said only that new “Covid pass” checks, using the NHS app to determine vaccine and test status, would be encouraged in “large, crowded settings where people are likely to be in close proximity to others outside their household”, prompting the head of the British Beer and Pub Association to warn that this must not be used to impose vaccine passports on drinkers by the back door.
Labour accused the government of taking a “high-risk, indeed fatalistic approach” at a time when daily coronavirus infections are running at 35,000 and are expected to reach 100,000 within weeks.
Instead of the “cautious” approach the prime minister has promised to follow, Mr Johnson and Mr Javid are “pushing (their) foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belts off”, said shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth.
And the authors of a letter to The Lancet branding the government’s plans a “dangerous experiment”, which has now been signed by 1,000 scientists and medics, accused Mr Johnson of pursuing a policy of “herd immunity through mass infection”.
The group, including clinical epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani of Queen Mary University London, Prof Trish Greenhalgh of Oxford University, Prof Christina Pagel of University College London and Prof Martin McKee of the London School of Tropical Health and Hygiene, said that ministers had decided to remove almost all public health measures despite being advised to expect up to 2 million infections in the coming weeks.
“A strategy that chooses mass infection in children and young people now as a way to protect the vulnerable in winter, instead of taking the time to vaccinate our young, is unethical and unscientific,” they said.
“It risks burdening a generation with long Covid, the long-term consequences of which are unknown.”
In a Downing Street press conference shortly after the new relaxations were confirmed by health secretary Sajid Javid in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson acknowledged that hospitalisations and deaths would continue to rise following the lifting of restrictions next week.
But he said that mortality was at the lower end, and infections in the middle, of the projections made by experts when his roadmap was first set out in February.
And he said that delaying until September would mean “reopening as the weather gets colder, and as the virus acquires a greater natural advantage, and when schools are back”. Mr Johnson said that England was meeting the government’s four tests for easing restrictions: successful vaccine deployment; reduced hospitalisations and deaths among those with jabs; no surge in cases putting unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and no new variants of concern.
“We think now is the right moment to proceed, when we have the natural firebreak of the school holidays in the next few days,” said the PM.
“But it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution. And I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough. This pandemic is not over. This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and for your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday 19 July to life as it was before Covid.”
Guidelines for the clinically extremely vulnerable will be updated, he said.
The general secretary of the public sector union Unison, Christina McAnea, said: “Now isn’t the time to ditch mandatory mask-wearing. The prime minister should be providing direction to the public, not sidestepping the responsibility that comes with government.
“Rising infections have more than made the case for keeping masks in shops, schools, on public transport and in other enclosed spaces. But a plethora of mixed messages is sowing confusion where clarity is needed.”
And the Unite union’s national officer for health, Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, called for a continued legal requirement for social distancing and mask-wearing in NHS buildings.
“We understand that a number of trusts in England will insist on the wearing of masks after next Monday – and this should be backed up by the law,” he said.
“What the prime minister is doing by his mixed messaging is causing confusion to NHS staff and the public. What is needed is clarity, in the same way that you know you can’t legally smoke in public places.”
And Prof Azra Ghani, chair in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College, said: “The decision to fully lift seems to be driven by an ‘if not now, then when’ approach under the assumption that the only option available is to remove all restrictions at once.”
Modelling by the government’s SPI-M independent advisory committee showed that a rapid increase in contacts was likely to result in the “worst possible scenario, with higher peak levels of hospitalisations and more deaths than under scenarios where the change in contacts occurs more gradually”, she warned.