Boris Johnson has signed off on plans to end the compulsory wearing of face masks from July 19, The Telegraph understands, as the Prime Minister prepares to declare this week that the link between Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations has finally been broken.
Mr Johnson is expected to lay out a blueprint for how England will live with the virus, as ministers prepare to replace swathes of legal restrictions with a call for “common sense” and “personal responsibility”.
As part of the move, the Government is expected to ditch the compulsory wearing of masks, along with the one-metre-plus rule that pubs and restaurants have warned is crippling them.
Announcing the changes this week, an increasingly bullish Mr Johnson is expected to cite recent data and modelling to declare that, while infection rates will rise as restrictions are eased, the successful roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines means that the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths are no longer rising at the same scale as before.
The latest data are believed to have given the Prime Minister the confidence that the legal requirement to wear face masks is among measures that can be lifted without the risk of the NHS coming under “unsustainable pressure”.
Currently, there is a legal requirement for people to wear face coverings on public transport and in shops. That is expected to be dropped in favour of guidance suggesting the use of face coverings in enclosed spaces.
A government source said the next stage “would be about encouraging both people and businesses to take a common sense approach as we learn to live with Covid. The emphasis will be on personal responsibility.”
The Telegraph understands Mr Johnson is also preparing to repeal sweeping powers which allowed councils to enforce Covid-19 regulations, including by allowing officials to shut down venues that failed to comply with the rules.
Under the plans, local authorities will only be able to act in exceptional circumstances and could be overruled by ministers.
Mr Johnson is expected to set out the Government’s plans to push ahead with the final step of its “roadmap out of lockdown” in little over a fortnight, after previous plans to lift restrictions on June 21 were postponed. The changes will then be confirmed on July 12, following a review of the latest data.
The earlier planned lifting of restrictions was delayed after Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, said that data suggested the link between people becoming infected with Covid-19 and subsequently hospitalised, was “severed but not broken”.
Mr Johnson is believed to have concluded that the link has now clearly been “broken”.
Last week, Dr Mike Tildesley, an epidemiologist from Warwick University, who sits on the Government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said: “If you look at cases, they are going up in a really concerning way – however, we haven’t yet seen that translate into a significant rise in hospital admissions and deaths.”
The Prime Minister is expected to tell MPs that the Government is on course to meet its “four tests” for easing Covid-19 restrictions. The tests are that the vaccine rollout continues successfully; evidence shows vaccines are “sufficiently effective” in reducing hospitalisations and deaths; infection rates do not risk putting “unsustainable pressure” on the NHS; and that the Government’s assessment of risks is not “fundamentally changed” by new variants.
Effectiveness of vaccines against hospitalisation (PHE)
The Prime Minister is also expected to confirm the findings of government reviews on social distancing and vaccine passports, which will pave the way for distancing to be ditched in bars, pubs and restaurants.
The Government has confirmed that it is considering proposals to scrap quarantine requirements for those who have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, but sources insisted that no decision had been taken and that the change would not be in place for July 19.
More than 33 million people in Britain have now had their second dose of a vaccine.
Latest UK vaccine numbers: rollout figures
Separately, ministers are planning to allow those who have received both doses to travel abroad to amber-listed countries without being required to quarantine on their return.
The relaxation of rules for vaccinated travellers could be in place as early as July 19, with the change expected by early August at the latest. Mr Johnson is considering what message should be delivered to employees currently working from home, as part of the unlocking.
Councils are expected to be stripped of their routine Covid-19 enforcement powers from July 19, in a move ministers see as a significant sign of the country returning to a degree of normality.
In April, local authorities were told by ministers to stop applying Covid-19 rules “disproportionately” and threatening to punish pubs for failing to ensure social distancing outside. Robert Jenrick, the Local Government Secretary, urged councils to avoid “overzealous interpretations of the rules”.
Before the reopening of clothing shops in April, council officials issued one Tesco shop with a prohibition notice demanding that it close its first floor because customers were able to buy clothes and “other non-essential items”.
Mr Johnson has described July 19 as the “terminus date” and Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, has said that the changes will be “irreversible”. But Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, is said to be concerned about the level of Covid-19 infections that could reoccur over the winter.
The government source said: “Step Four is the end of the roadmap, but it does not mean the pandemic is over. We will be moving into a new stage of our response, and it will be about encouraging both people and businesses to take a common sense approach as we learn to live with Covid.”
Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, and George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, have both indicated that they will stop wearing masks “as soon as possible”. Last month, Mr Eustice said: “I want to get back to normal.”