Boris Johnson stands ready to announce the relaxation of social distancing rules despite a backlash from scientists over his willingness to accept more serious illnesses and deaths from Covid-19.
People will be urged to “learn to live with this virus” when the prime minister on Monday reveals decisions on whether to scrap the “one meter plus rule” and instructions for working from home.
He is expected to say England is on its way to lift the distance rule – drinkers can order at the bar again – on July 19 after a cabinet minister announced that wearing face masks will be voluntary.
But the likely end of the restrictions and a call from Sajid Javid, the new health minister, to accept that “cases are increasing significantly” and comparing Covid to the flu, met with heavy criticism.
Mr Johnson will prepare the public for more serious illness and death at a press conference on Downing Street – “weakening” the link with rising infections, not severing it – but at a much lower level than before most people were vaccinated.
One member of the Sage government advisory board described Mr Javid’s comments as “terrifying,” while a second warned that it would lead to new “variant factories” as transmission skyrocketed.
A public health expert described the lifting of all Covid restrictions in just two weeks as “absolutely insane,” and Mr Johnson has been warned that the pandemic could still “get out of control”.
But the prime minister, who is also expected to undo plans for Covid status certificates for attending major events, will also work to ensure that the virus is viewed as the flu – which kills 20,000 people in a bad winter.
“As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to be careful about the risks of Covid and follow our lives with good judgment,” he will say.
Ministers and scientists will weigh up the latest data in a morning meeting. An additional 24,248 laboratory-confirmed infections and 15 deaths were reported on Sunday, while hospital admissions rose 24 percent from week to week.
The backlash came after Mr Javid called the health case for lifting all restrictions “imperative” and said, “We must also be aware that cases will increase significantly.”
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage, tweeted, “It’s terrifying to have a ‘health’ secretary who still thinks Covid is a flu, who doesn’t care about the rate of infection, who doesn’t recognize those who are best for health, also best for the economy, which wants to drop all protective measures while only half of us are vaccinated.
“The core message of the pandemic is:” This is not an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing. Your behavior affects my health. Familiarize yourself with the “we” concept. “
Professor Adam Finn of the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) warned that the UK pandemic could still “get out of control”.
“I will definitely continue to wear a mask if I have symptoms or if I have been in a closed room with many other people for a long time,” he said.
And warned of countries in the “fourth and fifth waves,” he added: “I am concerned about this, not only out of fairness to people around the world, but also to us in the UK.”
Pointing to the arrival of the highly infectious Delta variant from India, Finn told Sky News: “This will happen again if the pandemic continues unchecked around the world.
“Then we have an even worse problem and I think that is the most likely scenario that will trigger a fourth or fifth wave in this country that is spiraling out of control.”
Professor Robert West, a public health expert at University College London, argued that lifting all Covid restrictions so quickly was “absolutely insane”.
“It is as if a government is of the opinion that road safety should be entirely a matter of ‘personal responsibility’: no traffic lights, no traffic regulations, no left-hand driving law, no guard rails,” he tweeted.
Previously, community secretary Robert Jenrick had opened the lid of Mr. Johnson’s series of announcements as he greeted “very promising” dates for completing the roadmap out of the lockdown on July 19.
Confirmation of wearing masks would be voluntary, he told Sky News: “The state will not tell you what to do, but you will want to exercise a certain level of responsibility and judgment.
“So different people will come to different conclusions about things like masks, for example.”
On Saturday, the British Medical Association pleaded with the government not to lift all face-covering rules as Covid cases skyrocketed and a third wave was underway.
But Mr. Jenrick welcomed “a much more permissive regime” as of July 19, though final decisions won’t be announced until a week earlier.
Labor’s Rachel Reeves attacked unofficial briefings that the data is going in the right direction, urging ministers to present “the evidence” from scientists.
“It is important that we are absolutely confident that this is the right thing to do when QR codes stop when the masks fall off,” said the Shadow Chancellor.