The public will still be “expected” to wear masks and urged to work from home after July 19, ministers and officials said on Sunday, as MPs warned Freedom Day risked being “watered down”.
On Monday afternoon, Boris Johnson is set to confirm at a Number 10 press conference that step four in his roadmap out of restrictions will go ahead, as planned, next Monday.
It will mark the end of all legal Covid regulations, but concerns have arisen that government messaging will curb people’s ability to take advantage of some freedoms again.
The Prime Minister is expected to say the four tests that will allow him to proceed with the final stage in his roadmap have been met, but he issued a note of caution on Sunday night.
“We are tantalisingly close to the final milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown, but the plan to restore our freedoms must come with a warning,” he said.
While the vaccine rollout has “weakened” the link between Covid cases and hospitalisations or deaths, he stressed “the global pandemic is not over yet”.
Acknowledging that “cases will rise as we unlock”, Mr Johnson said: “Caution is absolutely vital, and we must all take responsibility so we don’t undo our progress, ensuring we continue to protect our NHS.”
His wary tone reflected fears about soaring coronavirus cases, which ministers have said could reach 100,000 a day within weeks, and growing worries in Whitehall about the decision to scrap all legal regulations this month.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said on Sunday that although there will be no government “diktat”, the public will be “expected” to continue wearing masks in crowded and enclosed places after July 19.
“The guidelines will be very clear on things like mask wearing. There’s an expectation for people to wear masks indoors, in crowded places, on public transport,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show. He added that it would be “both a personal responsibility and a corporate responsibility”.
Tory MPs said his rhetoric represented a notable toughening in the Government’s line on wearing face coverings. Last week Mr Johnson insisted that they would become a matter of “personal choice”, suggesting only that people “might choose” to wear them in crowded, indoor places.
Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, accused ministers of a “shift in policy” and said 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.”
Covid rules from July 19
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said Mr Zahawi’s assertion that there would be an “expectation” that people should continue to cover their mouths and noses in some circumstances was clouded in uncertainty.
He warned the move risked “watering things down” on so-called Freedom Day, and added that it could spark confusion, as well as fuel public disputes between champions and opponents of masks.
Alleging that ministers had bowed to pressure from scientists, he said the Government should either require mask-wearing under law, and allow the Commons a vote on the measure, or let it be a matter of choice free from “unclear” guidance.
Liam Fox, a former Cabinet minister, called on Mr Johnson to justify the guidance to continue wearing masks by publishing the scientific data around the protection offered by face coverings.
“At some point we have to get back to people exercising their personal responsibility… If the expectation is to wear the mask then give us the data,” he said.
Labour also heaped criticism on the Government over the policy, but called for mask-wearing to remain mandatory under law while Covid cases continue to rise.
The Government is set to publish fresh guidance on public transport, which is expected to include advice on face masks. Ministers will stop short of issuing a specific document on face coverings, however, it is understood.
A Whitehall source on Sunday night denied that Mr Zahawi’s intervention amounted to a marked shift in the Government’s stance on face masks. Insisting his remarks aligned with Mr Johnson’s, the source added: “There really hasn’t been a massive change.”
While guidance to “work from home” will also be lifted at step four of the roadmap, Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England (PHE) 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, then we should try our best to do that,” she told Times Radio.
She added: “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.”
Covid cases are not due to start declining until mid-August, scientific modelling predicts.
Business groups demanded clarity from the Government in the wake of Dr Hopkins’ remarks.
Hannah Essex, the co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “Business leaders are not public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory information is coming from official sources.”
The Government should “waste no time setting out crystal clear guidance” for businesses on how they can help curb the spread of the virus, she added.
Ms Essex said that staff shortages resulting from the current self-isolation rules, which can force a whole team to remain at home for 10 days if a single member tests positive for Covid, was likely to see many companies take a “cautious approach” to returning to the workplace from July 19.
Mike Cherry, the national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, also demanded clarity for employers and staff. “The Government has a responsibility to prevent confusion and set out a clear, consistent view,” he said.
Ahead of next Monday, the Government is set to publish updated guidance on safety in the workplace, which will rationalise 14 documents that cover a range of settings.
The fresh advice is expected to emphasise the importance of ventilation in workplaces and makes clear that risk assessments are still required. All legal regulations will end, bar measures required under pre-Covid health and safety law.
The Whitehall source hit back against the suggestion that Dr Hopkins’ view was official policy, insisting that the “work from home” guidance would be scrapped at step four of the roadmap and thereafter businesses must decide where their staff work.
“The Government does not have a position. It is being left entirely up to employers,” the source said.
Mr Johnson will use his televised press conference, which will take place at the same time as Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, updates the Commons, to urge Britons to come forward to receive the vaccine, and stress the importance of having both doses.
The latest analysis from PHE and the University of Cambridge suggests that vaccines have so far prevented an estimated 8.5 million infections and 30,000 deaths in England alone.