Boris Johnson has said caution is “absolutely vital” before virtually all formal Covid restrictions are dropped as ministers toughen their language amid expectations of spike in infection rates.
The Guardian understands ministers have been urged to prepare for at least one to two million new cases of the coronavirus in the coming weeks, although the vaccination schedule means much lower proportions of those infected will be hospitalized and die. than in previous waves.
The move to the final stage of unlocking on July 19, which will be announced by the Prime Minister on Monday afternoon, has been touted as the time for people to rely on their own judgment on coronavirus precautions, rather than on official prescriptions.
And while Johnson will outline the end of virtually all legal restrictions on everything from commercial capacity to distancing and the use of masks, people will still be urged to wear masks in crowded confined spaces, with similar vigilance. expected on the rapid return to the workplace.
The move “must be accompanied by a warning,” said Johnson, who will host a press conference in Downing Street at the same time as Sajid Javid, the health secretary, briefs MPs in the Commons.
“Cases will increase as we unlock, as we confirm our plans today our message will be clear. Caution is absolutely vital and we all need to take responsibility not to undo our progress, making sure we continue to protect our NHS. “
There has been a marked change in the tone taken by ministers about mask wearing amid government nervousness about the risks of the so-called ‘big bang’ approach to unlocking.
Nadhim Zahawi, the minister of vaccines, stressed the need for the public to remain “cautious and cautious”. He told Sky News: “The guidelines we establish tomorrow will demonstrate this, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor confined spaces, and of course to remain vigilant. “
His comments contrast with the tone taken a week earlier by Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, who said he would drop the mask when the restrictions end, adding: “I don’t particularly want to wear a mask. “
Two days later, Javid said that if he would wear a mask with him, he would not necessarily wear one even if it was recommended, for example by a train company, if the car he was traveling in was silent .
The comments raised alarm from groups representing people particularly vulnerable to Covid or with compromised immune systems, such as blood cancer patients, with warnings that a massive public abandonment of masks could mean these groups are effectively confined to their homes.
Another potential change should be renewed caution about moving people working from home when they can, an area identified by public health experts as a potentially important factor in determining whether the reopening is leading to a significant increase in Covid cases. .
While decisions about where people should work will rest with individual companies after July 19, Dr Susan Hopkins, incident director for Covid at Public Health England, said people should aim for “a cautious return to the office. Even after case rates start to rise. grave.
“If you are able to do your job efficiently from home, then I think over the next four to six weeks we should do our best to do it,” she told Times Radio.
Johnson should point out that even as cases approach the level of 100,000 per day predicted by Javid, a record for the pandemic, the fact that nearly 87% of UK adults have received at least one vaccine and just under 66% in have had two. , will significantly reduce the levels of serious illness and death.
Downing Street’s argument against the expectation of even higher immunization levels is that July 19 is near the start of the English school holidays, which means that a route of transmission will be limited for six weeks and increase pressure on the NHS at a time when it is not also tackling winter problems like the seasonal flu.
Ministers accept the approach represents a leap into the unknown, as young people – many of whom have yet to receive two doses of the vaccine – could still show longer-term symptoms of Covid even if they don’t fall seriously ill.
Labor called for more mitigation measures, such as measures to help hotel companies improve ventilation and make the use of masks mandatory on public transport and shops.
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, told Sky she understands Metropolitan Mayors Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan will make masks mandatory on Manchester trams and the London Underground.
Another issue for ministers to consider is the pressure on the NHS; a number of hospitals have already had to cancel operations due to the double pressure of an increase in Covid patients and staff forced to self-isolate. Javid said on Sunday that the scale of the backlog created by Covid could see waiting lists increase to 13 million in the coming months.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, he said the situation “will get worse before it gets better”.