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A cabinet minister has suggested that the final stage of lockdown lifting — including an end to compulsory face coverings — is on track to go ahead on 19 July amid “very promising” coronavirus data.
Housing minister Robert Jenrick told Sky’s Trevor Phillips that the public would be able to exercise “personal responsibility” when it came to wearing face masks in spaces such as shops and restaurants.
“Like many people, I want to get away from these restrictions as quickly as I possibly can, and we don’t want them to stay in place for a day longer than is necessary,” he said on Sunday morning.
“We are now going into a period where there won’t be legal restrictions, the state won’t be telling you what to do, but you will want to exercise a degree of personal responsibility and judgement.
“Different people will come to different conclusions on things like masks, for example, and the Prime Minister will set out more detail on the national policy on some of those restrictions in the coming days.”
Jenrick’s comments come in stark opposition, however, to the view of the British Medical Association (BMA) which called on Saturday for some legal restrictions to be kept in place past 19 July.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, said the easing of restrictions was not a binary “all or nothing” decision and that “sensible, cautious measures” were still required.
“As case numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate due to the rapid transmission of the Delta variant and an increase in people mixing with one another, it makes no sense to remove restrictions in their entirety in just over two weeks’ time,” he said.
“The promise was to make decisions based on data and not dates, and while we were pleased to see the government react to data in delaying the easing on 21 June last month, ministers must not now simply disregard the most recent, damning numbers by rushing into meeting their new 19 July deadline.”
The UK recorded 27,125 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, a rise of 74% on the previous seven days, and another 27 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
But, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, NHS England medical director Professor Stephen Powis said “the situation is now very different” compared to where the country was in January, and that the vaccine rollout was having an effect on the link between cases and hospitalisations.
“The link is not totally broken — there are people in hospital who’ve been vaccinated — but it’s severely weakened,” he continued.
“So, of course, the key aim now is to get as many people vaccinated before July 19th.”
Professor Powis said he could not “speculate” on whether the government would choose to keep some restrictions such as compulsory face coverings, but added that he hoped some pandemic habits would continue into the future.
“I think some people will choose to be more cautious,” he said.“Some people may choose to wear face masks in particular circumstances, in crowded environments, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Those habits to reduce infections are a good thing to keep.”
Cabinet ministers are standing firm behind the message that the delayed final stage of lockdown lifting, which was moved from 21 June to 19 July, will go ahead as planned.
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, newly-appointed health secretary Sajid Javid said that, alongside economic arguments, the “health arguments are equally compelling” for an end to Covid restrictions.
“Rules that we have had to put in place have caused a shocking rise in domestic violence and a terrible impact on so many people’s mental health,” he added.In a markedly more hawkish tone than his predecessor Matt Hancock, Javid said his job was to “restore our freedoms and learn to live with Covid-19” and that ending lockdown would mean the UK would be “not just freer but healthier”.
“We are on track for July 19 and we have to be honest with people about the fact that we cannot eliminate Covid,” he said.
“We also need to be clear that cases are going to rise significantly… But no date we choose will ever come without risk, so we have to take a broad and balanced view.”
Speaking on Friday, the Prime Minister said he was confident that the roadmap could now go ahead as planned, but said “extra precautions” may still be needed.
“I know how impatient people are to get back to total normality, as indeed am I,” Boris Johnson said.“We’ll be wanting to go back to a world that is as close to the status quo, anti-Covid, as possible.
“But there may be some things we have to do, extra precautions that we have to take.”
The government is expected to set out the details of the final stage of the roadmap later this week.
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