Clash of views
Splits emerge over Johnson’s Covid easing plan
Wearing masks may become ‘optional’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s expected decision to drastically ease Covid restrictions is being challenged by his own scientific advisers, the Labour opposition and the Scottish Government.
Mr Johnson wants to see a return to a near-normal situation as soon as possible and will confirm next Monday whether social distancing and mask-wearing will be dropped in England from 19 July.
The move is also likely to trigger a return of employees to offices and more commuters on public transport.
But the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned that removing restrictions would allow virus cases to rise, presenting a ‘significant risk’ that they may need to return this winter. It said life may never return completely to normal.
The group said that should a ‘variant of concern’ arrive that threatened immunity, lockdown restrictions would need to reimposed for much longer.
The decision to scrap mask-wearing was branded “reckless” by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and the Scottish Government has insisted face coverings will continue have a role to play in the fight against the coronavirus.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “As the First Minister has set out, we will have to manage living with COVID-19 for some time to come, even when we are able to move beyond Level 0.
Boris Johnson is expected to ease restrictions
“While we hope we are in the process of emerging from the pandemic, case rates at the moment underline the fact that this virus is still with us.
“Physical distancing, face coverings, hand-washing, staying at home if you have symptoms and getting tested, some flexibility from employers with regards home-working and – above all – getting vaccinated will all continue to be important tools in helping keep transmission down, and part of the collective, civic duty we all owe to each other.
“Face coverings are a hugely important mitigation in the fight against COVID-19 as they create a physical barrier that helps stop the virus spreading from an infected person, while providing a degree of protection to the wearer against exposure to the virus.
“At least for a period, we are therefore likely to require the continued wearing of face coverings in certain settings — for example, shops and public transport.
“We are engaging with a range of sectors ahead of final decisions being made.”
Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said that infection rates and hospitalisations will be taken into account ahead of the Scottish Government’s planned move to level 0 on July 19.
The First Minister had previously said unlocking would depend only on vaccination rates, and not be linked to levels of infection.
Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross had urged the Scottish Government to stick to its timetable of moving Scotland to Level 0 later this month, while simultaneously attacking it for “critical failures” which have resulted in rising case numbers.
At a Downing Street press conference the Prime Minister placed an emphasis on trusting the public’s judgement.
Mr Johnson said: “We’re seeing rising hospital admissions and we must reconcile ourselves sadly to more deaths from Covid.
“In these circumstances we must take a careful and a balanced decision.
“And there’s only one reason why we can contemplate going ahead to step four in circumstances where we’d normally be locking down further, and that’s because of the continuing effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.
“And we must be honest with ourselves that 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.”
Mr Johnson insisted he must “balance the risk” of the disease from the virus and restrictions which “inevitably take their toll on people’s lives and livelihoods, on people’s health and mental health”.
Under the plans in England there will be no limits on social contact, meaning the end of the orders such as the “rule of six” and restrictions on guests at weddings and mourners at funerals.
Although the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be lifted, guidance will suggest people may like to do so in crowded areas.
All remaining businesses will be able to reopen, including nightclubs, while capacity caps will be lifted and bars and restaurants will no longer be restricted to table service. It also sees the end of the work from home order.
The limit on named care home visitors will be also be scrapped, but infection control measures will remain in place.
Mr Johnson also made clear there would be no requirement for the so-called vaccine passports, but admitted firms will be able to set up the system themselves.