Boris Johnson has told a Downing Street press conference that England is on track to lift the majority of its remaining coronavirus restrictions as planned on 19 July — despite lingering concern over the spread of the Delta variant.
He said the government was taking a “carefully and balanced decision” when it came to lifting restrictions, but warned that the country must “reconcile ourselves sadly to more deaths”.
He continued: “We must be honest with ourselves if we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer, and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves, when will we be able to return to normal?”
“And to those who say we should delay again. The alternative to that is to open up in winter when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all this year.”
The PM marked the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the NHS, and said that "there could not be a more fitting moment to pay tribute, once again, to every one of our NHS and social care workers".
"The best thing we can do to repay their courage and dedication right now is to protect ourselves and others and get those jabs whenever our turn comes," he continued.
The final stage of the government’s route out of lockdown was originally due to take place on 21 June, but was delayed by four weeks to allow more people to be vaccinated and so more data could be collected on the dominant Delta variant.
An official review of remaining measures is not due to take place until 12 July, but Downing Street has said today’s announcement would give businesses time to prepare for the changes.
The prime minister confirmed that the legal requirement to wear a face covering in public spaces such as transport networks, shops and hospitality is set to be dropped from 19 July — though it will be advised that they are worn in crowded spaces.
Restrictions on social gatherings — including the "rule of six" — will cease, and there will be no caps on attendance at life events such as weddings and funerals.
Care home residents will no longer have a limit on the number of named visitors they can have, but some infection control measures will remain in place to protect this most vulnerable group.
The one metre social distancing rules will be scrapped, though it will still be a legal requirement at border entry points such as airports.
Johnson also announced that the advice on working from home would end alongside the other restrictions later this month.
Table service and test and trace QR code sign-ins will no longer be mandatory in bars and restaurants, while capacity limits on events such as theatres, cinemas and sporting events will be dropped. Nightclubs and other night-time entertainment venues will be permitted to open from 19 July for the first time since restrictions came into effect in March 2020.
Venues will be able to voluntarily require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test as a condition of entry, but Johnson confirmed this was not set to become a legal requirement, following the conclusion of the government's review into the efficacy of so-called vaccine passports.
The NHS Test and Trace system will continue to operate and it will still be a legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive or are asked to do so by the NHS. Free asymptomatic testing will also remain available to the public until 30 September.
To speed up the final stages of the vaccine rollout, the prime minister also signalled that the recommended gap between doses for under-40s would be dropped from 12 weeks to eight.
Around 64% of the UK adult population is now fully vaccinated — approximately 33.7 million people — while 86.1% have had at least one jab — or 45.3 million people.
Further details of the lockdown lifting are expected to be announced this week, including plans to allow double vaccinated individuals to skip quarantine rules when returning from "amber list" countries, and updates on restrictions in education settings.
These changes will only apply to England, with Scotland aiming to lift its restrictions by 9 August, Wales reviewing its measures on 15 July, and Northern Ireland set to announce its next steps on 8 July.
The prime minister's announcement has been welcomed by many sectors worst affected by the restrictions, such as live music, theatres and the night time economy.
"As an industry that has been closed since the start of the pandemic, we are thrilled at the prospect of welcoming live music fans back through our doors,” said Greg Parmley, chief executive of industry body Live.
“But the last year has taught us that nothing can be taken for granted.”
He continued: "If the government wants the industry to bounce back and help the economy recover, they need to provide a government-backed insurance scheme to give organisers the confidence and security they still desperately need."
Others have expressed concern about the plans to move away from face coverings, with unions arguing that the move puts retail staff at risk.
Bobby Morton, Unite's national officer for passenger transport, said relying on personal choice was "absolutely ridiculous".
"To end the requirement to wear masks on public transport would be an act of gross negligence by the government," he said.
However, the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, said on Monday that any relaxation of coronavirus restrictions should also apply to train services.
"Trains should be treated consistently with other indoor settings when it comes to the removal or on-going use of restrictions," it said in a statement.
The group argued that train carriages are "low risk" settings because they are well ventilated, adding that "any decision to leave public transport behind other parts of the economy would need to be based on the science".
There have also been warnings from medical experts that it could be too soon to scrap the legal requirement to wear masks, with some calling for the measures to stay in place throughout the summer.
Speaking on Saturday, 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.
Eleanor Langford is lead curation editor and political reporter for CSW's sister title's PoliticsHome and The House, where a version of this story first appeared.