WHO criticises claim PM could drop face mask and social distancing rules in weeks

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·Freelance news writer, Yahoo UK
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Boris Johnson is planning to drop face mask rules on 19 July, according to reports. (Alberto Pezzali/PA)
Boris Johnson is planning to drop face-mask rules on 19 July, according to reports. (Alberto Pezzali/PA)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised the government’s reported plans to drop face mask and social distancing requirements on 19 July.

It comes after The Times reported that these measures, as well as working from home, are set to be abandoned when England’s coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

The paper said the emphasis will shift to “personal responsibility”, as opposed to legally compelling people to, for example, wear masks in shops or on public transport.

The removal of social distancing would also allow places such as nightclubs to reopen.

Watch: Wednesday's daily politics briefing

Ministers are said to be encouraged by low COVID deaths even as infections increase: a further sign of the effectiveness of vaccines.

However, Dr David Nabarro, a special envoy on COVID at the WHO, was sceptical about the plans.

He told Sky News on Wednesday of a need to “maintain defences against the virus to stop it welling up more and more”.

The now-dominant Delta variant, first identified in India, is 60% more transmissible than the previously dominant Alpha variant, first identified in Kent.

Dr Nabarro said that due to variants, “we’re going to have to continue by keeping a bit of a distance from each other and then I’m going to suggest that the physical distancing part of one metre-plus and mask wearing will be necessary, particularly in places where there’s a lot of virus.

“We can’t just simply ignore that.”

Speaking on the same programme, though, Brendan Wren, professor of vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, criticised the “coronamania” which he said has gripped the country and the government.

Prof Wren added he was also “sceptical” about the use of face masks: “They don’t act as a physical barrier to the tiny, tiny viral particles.”

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He also said “we shouldn’t be so fearful”, with new variants of the virus inevitable as “it’s just nature taking its course”.

Prof Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, which advises the government, also said it was “absolutely a good idea to consider” the lifting of all restrictions.

Pointing to the “very rapid” increase in cases – 72,401 were recorded in the seven days to Tuesday, up 18,700 from the previous seven days – Prof Woolhouse added: “The hope is that it’s not so enormous a surge that cases spill over into that very small fraction of people who are vulnerable to this virus but for some reason haven’t had the vaccine, or an even smaller minority where the vaccine doesn’t work so effectively.”

Meanwhile, the government has said it will publish the results of trials of mass events ahead of the planned 19 July unlocking.

Watch: Coronavirus in numbers

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