Boris Johnson triggered a row over masks last night as he ditched the legal diktat on their use – but urged many people to continue wearing them.
From July 19 the face coverings will no longer be required by law anywhere in England.
But at a Downing Street press conference last night, the Prime Minister suggested they should still be worn in crowded indoor places. And his top medical advisers went further, saying they would continue to wear them in a variety of situations.
Doctors, trade unions and Labour demanded the laws be kept in place.
Masks have been mandatory on public transport since last June and in shops since last July, with fines of up to £6,400.
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to the press during a briefing a Downing Street today
The British Medical Association said scrapping the fines ‘made no sense’ and union leaders suggested ministers would have blood on their hands.
Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, the Labour mayors of London and Greater Manchester, also criticised the move.
But others, including Tory MPs, said ministers should have gone further and claimed masks were unnecessary. Mr Johnson insisted it was time to ‘trust’ members of the public to use their own ‘good judgment’.
He added: ‘What we’re trying to do is move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility.
‘Clearly there’s a big difference between travelling on a crowded Tube train and sitting late at night in a virtually empty carriage on the main railway line.
‘So what we want to do is for people to exercise their personal responsibility but to remember the value of face coverings both in protecting themselves, and others.’
The Prime Minister said he would ‘obviously wear a mask in crowded places where you are meeting people that you don’t know … to protect others and as a matter of simple courtesy’.
Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, said he would continue to wear a face covering when in a crowded situation indoors, when required to by an authority and if someone was uncomfortable with him not wearing one.
Legal restrictions on wearing masks will be lifted completely, although places including hospitals and care homes may still decide to ask visitors to use them.
And it will be down to individual shops, hospitality venues and transport providers whether they request they are worn.
The Prime Minister suggested that masks should still be worn in crowded indoor places. (Stock image)
The British Medical Association said scrapping the fines ‘made no sense’ and union leaders suggested ministers would have blood on their hands. (Stock image)
Huw Merriman, Conservative chairman of the Commons transport committee, suggested it was ‘confusing’ for ministers to recommend the use of masks in some settings while making them no longer compulsory.
He said: ‘I just feel we have to be braver now and the vaccine allows us to be that brave.’
Face coverings still mandatory on our flights, say top airlines
Airlines will keep masks mandatory despite Boris Johnson last night moving to scrap compulsory face coverings.
Ryanair and easyJet were among those who confirmed fliers will still be required to wear face coverings beyond July 19.
British Airways is expected to join them, with a spokesman saying: ‘We keep our policies under constant review.’
Tui and Virgin Atlantic also hinted that travellers could be required to wear face coverings after restrictions relax further.
Ryanair said: ‘In order to protect the health of our customers and crew, the use of face masks will still be mandatory across all Ryanair flights.’
While an easyJet spokesman said: ‘At present there are no changes to easyJet’s on-board mask policy. We continue to be guided by our in-house medical adviser and a number of key industry governing bodies… and at present their guidance around the wearing of masks on-board remains unchanged.’
Tui said it would be following advice from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, which continues to advise masks be worn.
And Virgin Atlantic said it was ‘reviewing’ its policy following last night’s announcement, adding: ‘Currently all customers and our crew are required to wear their masks for the duration of the flight.’
Jet2 said it would continue to make masks compulsory if the Civil Aviation Authority’s current advice to do so does not change.
Unite, which represents tens of thousands of public transport workers, accused the Government of ‘gross negligence’.
Spokesman Bobby Morton told Radio 4’s the World at One: ‘The rate of infection will go even higher again. Unfortunately as we move into the winter, you will see more deaths because of this – it is an intolerable situation. It is far too early as far as I am concerned.’
He suggested the decision to scrap the law on wearing masks was being driven by money. ‘All I would like to say is when they get that money, there might be blood on it,’ he added.
Usdaw, which represents shop workers, called for masks to remain mandatory in supermarkets.
Mr Khan and Mr Burnham both urged Mr Johnson to rethink his decision. But they signalled they would not bring in their own local requirements for travellers to wear face masks on public transport.
‘If the Government comes up with a national ruling I just don’t see how we would be able to enforce it at our level,’ Mr Burnham said.
Several airlines said they would continue to require passengers to wear face coverings, including Ryanair and EasyJet.
But the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train companies, backed the relaxation of the rules.
‘Travelling by train is low risk and carriages are well ventilated with air regularly refreshed either by air conditioning systems, or by doors and windows being opened,’ it said in a statement.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA, said: ‘We believe that it makes no sense to stop wearing face masks in enclosed public settings such as public transport.
‘We know that face masks are proven to reduce the spread of this infection.
‘At a time where we have exceptional high levels of cases we can’t understand why we would knowingly want people to become infected.
‘Face masks do not protect the wearer they protect people around you. Many people will be forced to go to work.
‘If they need to travel on public transport why should they be exposed to the virus when it’s so simple that they can be protected by themselves and others around them wearing masks.’
But Robert Dingwall, a sociology professor at Nottingham Trent University, said: ‘The benefits of masks have always been uncertain because the quality of the evidence in both directions is so weak.
‘Any benefit has probably been quite small – or it would have been obvious even from weak studies.’
A poll by YouGov last night suggested 71 per cent believe face coverings should continue to be mandatory on public transport once other coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
Pubs and theatres won’t have to ask for vaccine passports
Vaccine passports will not be required in pubs and theatres this summer, Mr Johnson confirmed last night.
The Prime Minister said the burdens on businesses and those who had not been double jabbed were simply too great for the scheme to be required by law.
However, venues will not be barred from asking for vaccine passports – meaning customers might still have to use them.
Ministers said they would hold in reserve the power to bring in Covid certification in the winter, if cases began to rise.
The passports allow people through the NHS app to enter venues if they have had two vaccinations or a recent negative test. The system will continue for international travel, as most countries will demand proof of jab status before travel.
Mr Johnson said: ‘There will be no Covid certificate required as a condition of entry to any venue or event, although businesses and events can certainly make use of certification and the NHS app gives you a Covid pass as one way to show your Covid status.’
The decision followed a review that concluded the burdens of imposing vaccine passports outweighed the public health benefits. The Government said it had considered a wide range of evidence.