Boris Johnson is to announce that the lifting of most remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England will go ahead on 19 July amid a backlash from government scientific advisers who have warned that doing so would be like building new “variant factories”.
Despite cases having risen to their highest level since January 2021, the prime minister is set to press ahead with the final stage of unlocking in two weeks.
In a Downing Street press conference on Monday afternoon, he is expected to announce that, with 86% of adults in the UK having had at least a first jab, the government will move from relying on legal curbs to control people’s behaviour to letting individuals make their own decisions.
Changes to be announced include allowing fully vaccinated adults to travel to amber list countries without having to self-isolate when they return; making the wearing of face masks voluntary, apart from in hospitals and other healthcare settings; and no longer requiring fully vaccinated adults to self-isolate if they have come into contact with an infected person.
The school bubbles system that has forced hundreds of thousands of pupils to quarantine at home if someone in their bubble tested positive is also expected to be dropped, while pub and restaurant customers may no longer have to scan an NHS QR code.
The different approach to tackling Covid was supported by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, who claimed it would be impossible to eradicate the disease and that the country would have to “find ways to cope with it”, as with flu.
He also said the health arguments for opening up were “compelling” but conceded dangerous new variants could emerge that current vaccines were ineffective against.
As well as announcing that nightclubs can reopen in two weeks’ time, Johnson is due to reveal the results of government reviews into social distancing and Covid status certificates.
The Guardian revealed last week that ministers were planning to remove all mandatory mask and social distancing restrictions in England from 19 July, though national guidance may remain in place encouraging caution in high-risk areas such as on public transport.
Covid status certificates – an idea Johnson once championed as a way to allow access to places such as theatres and pubs for those who can prove they have been vaccinated, had a recent negative test result or have antibodies – are also expected to be ditched, though government sources have hinted they could be introduced in the winter.
Conservative MPs who were once more cautious have mostly been convinced the time is right for mass unlocking, with one saying it was becoming clear rising infections were “not remotely correlated” to hospitalisations or deaths so “we’ve just got to get on with it”. But another Tory figure warned “the science may become a second thought” after 19 July.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, revealed on Sky News he would shed his mask as soon as possible, while Prof Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said he would carry on wearing a face covering “indefinitely” when in an enclosed, crowded space.
Concern is building among scientists about the new wave of infections in the UK and ministers’ determination to press on with unlocking.
Stephen Reicher, a professor at the University of St Andrews who is also a member of the government subcommittee advising on behavioural science, said: “It is frightening to have a ‘health’ secretary who still thinks Covid is flu. Who is unconcerned at levels of infection. Who doesn’t realise that those who do best for health also do best for the economy. Who wants to ditch all protections while only half of us are vaccinated.”
He added: “Above all, it is frightening to have a ‘health’ secretary who wants to make all protections a matter of personal choice when the key message of the pandemic is: this isn’t an ‘I’ thing, it’s a ‘we’ thing.”
Prof Susan Michie, the director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London (UCL), who sits on the same subcommittee, said: “Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate.”
A further 24,248 cases were reported in the UK on Sunday – up from 15,953 on the same day the previous week. There were a further 15 deaths.
The north-east of England recorded a particular surge in infections, with South Tyneside reporting a 195% increase in the seven days to 29 June, Gateshead a 142% increase and Sunderland a 131% increase. Only Oxford and Tamworth have recorded greater increases during this period, with all five areas having a prevalence of between 480 and 585 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people.
“Something weird is happening in the north-east, and it is a bit worrying,” said Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at UCL. Not only were cases there rising rapidly, so were hospitalisations and the proportion of tests recording a positive result, she said.
Other scientists said the relaxation of many of the restrictions, while not risk-free, made sense.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Double-vaccinated people are less likely to get an infection and even if infected are less likely to infect others … We will eventually come into an equilibrium with this virus as we have with all the other endemic respiratory infections.”
Prof Allyson Pollock, a clinical professor of public health at Newcastle University, said Javid’s approach was sensible. She said: “Population immunity is rapidly being achieved due to a combination of naturally acquired immunity through infection and vaccination. Unknowns are duration of immunity, impact of variants and who is at individual risk of reinfection or transmission.”