Degrees of freedom: What the rules will say after July 19
Boris Johnson last night warned Covid curbs could return in September if new freedoms are abused.
He confirmed most restrictions will be axed on Monday but at a gloomy Downing Street press conference insisted caution was vital.
He added: ‘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, July 19, to life as it was before Covid.’
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said families should still ‘avoid unnecessary meetings’ with other households with normal life returning only ‘very slowly’.
Mr Johnson called for continued mask-wearing in busy indoor settings such as trains, supermarkets and cinemas. And he urged firms not to order staff back to their desks despite the lifting of the formal ‘work from home guidance’.
The Prime Minister also dropped his claim that the unlocking would be ‘irreversible’. Asked whether restrictions could return, he said he hoped they would not but added: ‘We must rule nothing out.’
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said even the limited taste of freedom could prove short-lived.
‘Enjoy summer if you can,’ he said. ‘Winter is coming – and I fear that Covid restrictions will return.’
The warnings came as:
- A U-turn on vaccine passports means nightclubs, music venues, theatres and busy pubs will be encouraged to ask for Covid status;
- More than two million clinically vulnerable people will be advised to continue minimising social contact until the third wave of the virus subsides;
- A further 34,471 Covid cases were reported, along with 563 hospital admissions and six deaths;
- The Sage advisory committee warned the NHS risked collapse if all precautions were dropped, with hospital admissions already forecast to reach up to 2,000 a day next month;
- The scientists predicted Covid-related deaths could hit 200 a day by then, up from the average now of under 30;
- Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that fully vaccinated frontline NHS staff would be exempted from self-isolation rules;
- Ministers prepared to push through regulations today requiring care home staff to have the Covid jab;
- The Commons authorities faced criticism for suggesting staff will have to wear masks when MPs can opt out;
- Tory politicians warned the economy would ‘grind to a halt’ unless self-isolation rules were scaled back.
Mr Johnson said the vaccine programme made next week’s unlocking possible by severely weakening the link between cases and deaths.
But he stressed it was vital not to ‘tear the pants out of it’, adding: ‘Because the legal restrictions have come off, it should not be taken as an invitation by everybody to have a great jubilee and freedom from any kind of caution. We don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desks as one from Monday.’
Boris Johnson last night warned Covid curbs could return in September if new freedoms are abused
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned that ‘Freedom Day’ was being watered down at the behest of nervous experts. In the Commons, Mr Javid acknowledged there were risks in reopening next week, but said delaying the measures could push cases into the autumn and winter, when the NHS would struggle to cope.
And he said ministers had to consider the costs of keeping restrictions in place, including those to the economy and mental health.
The remaining measures and guidance will be reviewed by September 30 at the latest.
Professor Whitty said there was no clear evidence that a delay to reopening now would make a difference but ‘what is going to make a difference is going slowly’.
Matthew Fell of the CBI welcomed the reopening but added: ‘It is now mission critical that the Government, with the support of business, does all it can to build confidence in the reopening.’
He urged ministers to encourage the use of public transport, support workplace testing and reduce self-isolation for the double-jabbed.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer condemned the decision to lift almost all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England at the same time.
He said: ‘With infection rates still going up at the rate they are going up that is still reckless, I am afraid. We need a safe way to come through this.
‘The Government wants to put the country in a car without a seatbelt to get us as quickly as possible to the end of the roadmap. Lifting all protections at the same time is just wrong.’
Earlier, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said going ahead with stage four of the roadmap was a ‘step closer to the life we used to live’, adding that ‘we all want this to be a one-way journey’.
‘The case numbers will get a lot worse before they get better,’ he said. ‘But we do not believe that infection rates will put unsustainable pressure on the NHS.’
He added: ‘This is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life… To those who say ”why take this step now” I say ”if not now, when?” There will never be a perfect time to take this step.’
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said families should still ‘avoid unnecessary meetings’ with other households with normal life returning only ‘very slowly’
The coronavirus restrictions which will be removed from July 19
Nightclubs, which have been closed since the first lockdown in March last year, will be allowed to open their doors but will be encouraged to use certification to minimise the risks.
Other ‘large events’ will also be encouraged to use vaccine passports, with customers able to prove their status using the NHS app.
The Government will ‘expect and recommend’ the continued use of face masks in crowded areas and on public transport.
The return of employees to the workplace, seen as key for helping town and city centre businesses which rely on commuters, is not expected to happen overnight, with firms encouraged to take a gradual approach.
Mr Javid also warned there are no guarantees the freedoms will stay for good, saying the Government will ‘come down hard at the moment we detect a new variant’.
He reiterated that cases are rising and could reach 100,000 a day later in the summer – with the average number of daily cases currently more than 26,000, which has doubled over the past 11 days.
He said hospital admissions are also rising but said they are lower in this wave compared to a previous wave, noting people over the age of 65 – who are more likely to be double-jabbed – accounted for 31 per cent of Covid admissions last week compared to 61 per cent in January.
He went on: ‘Even as we look to ease restrictions, we will maintain tough measures at the borders and we will expand our capacity for genomic sequencing … so that we can come down hard at the moment we detect a new variant.’
The announcements were broadly welcomed by the stricken hospitality industry.
But Labour condemned the Government’s ‘high risk’ and ‘fatalistic’ approach.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Commons the Government’s plan to continue with the road map next week could lead to more mutant variants of Covid-19, likening it to the Health Secretary ‘putting his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belt off’.
Mr Ashworth said: ‘The Secretary of State has taken a high risk, indeed fatalistic, approach. Trying to guess what might happen in the winter, deciding that infections are going up anyway.
‘Instead of caution he is putting his foot down the on the accelerator while throwing the seat belt off.
‘He admits that could mean 2,000 infections a day.
‘That means potentially thousands suffering debilitating long Covid. It means as more cases arise potentially more escape and the threat of new more transmissible variant emerging.’
Mr Ashworth warned Israel had reintroduced masks and the Netherlands had to close reopened nightclubs after two weeks.
Michael Kill, Chief Executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said: ‘The decision to go ahead with reopening on the 19th of July is the correct one. After 16 months of crippling restrictions, businesses in the night time economy are ready to play our part in the safe reopening of society. Today should mark the beginning of nightlife’s long journey to rebuild itself.’
‘There are some important hurdles ahead for our sector, including self isolation rules which have the potential to throw the recovery off course, but for those businesses that have made it this far in the pandemic, I feel confident that the sense of community and togetherness the sector has shown to this point will help us overcome these challenges.’
‘We look forward to the Government providing more guidance for businesses owners – this should be practical and easy to navigate. But from today’s statement we can say that the Government are right not to mandate the use of Covid status certification systems. Much of the night time economy relies on spontaneous consumers, and by permitting businesses to opt out, the Government have allowed for this trade to continue.’
In a round of interviews earlier, Mr Argar said it is ‘possible’ that daily coronavirus case numbers could hit the 100,000 mark but stressed that vaccines are helping to protect people from serious illness and hospital admission.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘You’ve seen the Secretary of State and others talk about between a range of 50,000 to 100,000 is possible.’
SAGE says daily Covid deaths shouldn’t top 200 this autumn if people gradually return to normal life
SAGE today signed off on plans to end Covid restrictions in England next week after estimating there will be 10 times fewer deaths and half as many hospital admissions in the third wave compared to previous peaks.
Modelling by the expert group said it was realistic to expect between 100 to 200 daily fatalities and 1,000 to 2,000 hospital admissions at the worst of the current outbreak this autumn, following the unlocking on July 19.
There is a 10-fold lower risk of dying from Covid now than in the second wave because of the ‘vaccine effect’ and the fact younger people now make up the bulk of cases, SAGE revealed.
For this reason the group expects the number of daily deaths to be ‘considerably smaller’ than the 1,200 recorded in January and anticipates hospital admissions will stay ‘well below’ the 4,000 in the winter.
The forecasts were revealed as part of a tranche of documents published today ahead of the Downing Street press conference and have given No10 the confidence to press ahead with Freedom Day next Monday.
While all the modelling points towards a much smaller epidemic than previously seen, SAGE admitted its calculations were highly uncertain and warned that the crisis could quickly spiral out of control if people suddenly abandon all personal precautions on July 19.
This could lead to 12,000 admissions per day in a worst-case scenario, according to modelling by Imperial College London, headed by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, who was instrumental in the initial shutdown last spring. Modellers at the London School of Hygiene said daily deaths could surpass 500 in their gloomiest forecast.
SAGE said that the slower Britons return to normal life, the better, and have urged people to keep wear masks in crowded areas, meet friends outside where possible and isolate if they feel ill or are ‘pinged’ by the NHS contact tracing app.
The advisory panel has also signed off on the July 19 date because delaying restrictions would only push the peak back into winter, when the NHS will be wrestling with seasonal pressures.
Exactly when the third peak will happen is still not known but the experts believe it will be sometime in August. They are bracing for more than 100,000 daily infections – which would dwarf the peak of 60,000 in January.
The group is advising the Government puts ‘contingency plans’ in place so that restrictions can be quickly rolled back if the NHS starts to buckle under the pressure of an influx of admissions.
Mr Argar added: ‘If you look at hospital admissions, and forgive me if my figures are a little bit out, but the seven-day rolling average of hospital admissions for now, when we’re seeing this level of infection rate, is roughly between 350 and 400 a day.
‘Back in January, with an equivalent infection rate, we were seeing 1,800 to 2,000.
‘So you can see how that vaccine programme may not have broken it by 100 per cent because the vaccine isn’t 100 per cent effective, but it has really severely weakened that link and therefore the numbers we are going to see in hospital are going to be much smaller.’
Mr Argar defended the decision to ditch mandatory masks in England, saying train companies may well look at demanding them as a ‘condition of carriage’.
‘But at a governmental level, what we have set out, what we will be looking to do is see the legal requirements fall away but for guidance – strong guidance and cautious guidance – to be in place for people to exercise their common sense.’
Asked about former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith complaining that the stance risks creating confusion, Mr Argar replied: ‘I don’t think that the British people will struggle to look at the guidance and form their own common-sense judgment – I don’t think it will introduce confusion.
‘I think people will look at it, they will form a sensible judgment based on the guidance.’
Dr Hopkins yesterday called for people to continue following the advice beyond July 19.
‘If you are able to do your business effectively from home then I think over the next four to six weeks, as there’s a rise in cases, we should try our best to do that,’ she told Times Radio.
‘Then we should continue to look and see and have a cautious return to the office over the coming weeks, once we start to see a decline in the number of cases.’
Dr Sarah Clarke, an intensive care consultant in Blackburn and a board member of the UK’s Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, told Times Radio there was still ‘considerable pressure around the country’ in ICU.
‘I would absolutely err on the side of extreme caution,’ she said.
‘I will continue to wear a mask at all times when I’m in an enclosed space, and I will to protect others and ensure that others stay as safe as possible.’
She said there had been a 60 per cent increase in admissions to intensive care over the last week and ‘we have over 500 patients being admitted per day into intensive cares’.
She added: ‘That’s not sustainable if we all decide to take our masks off and think that the vaccine programme no longer applies.’
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi yesterday said there would now be a clear ‘expectation’ that people should continue to wear face masks in crowded indoor settings.
He added that it is ‘important that we remain cautious’, but insisted he is ‘confident that we can proceed with this step forward’ because 87 per cent of adults have now had a first vaccine dose.
Mr Javid struck a harder line on masks in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, saying people would be ‘irresponsible’ not to wear one in a crowded space.
‘If someone is not doing that, frankly, they’re just being irresponsible, they’re not playing their role as a responsible citizen,’ he said.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith has accused ministers of ‘losing their nerve’ over the lifting of restrictions.
He said: ‘This is not freedom at all. Ministers are being beaten up by the scientists in the media and they are beginning to wobble.
‘The question for the scientists is: do they believe the vaccines work?
‘If they work – and they clearly do to reduce hospitalisations and deaths – then we should not be continuing to sacrifice the economy on the altar of some misguided zero Covid policy.’
While Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdownsceptic Tory MPs, accused ministers of a ‘shift in policy’ and said that it was ‘torturing the nation’.
Arguing that for some people wearing a mask is a ‘terrible thing’, he added: ‘It’s not fair snatching away people’s hope, it’s psychologically, profoundly destructive.’