Covid: Scrapping restrictions in England on 19 July could have 'devastating consequences'

ITV Science Editor Tom Clarke reports on experts alarm over the decision to relax restrictions

Boris Johnson’s “irresponsible” decision to press ahead with lockdown lifting in England despite Covid-19 infections continuing to surge could have “potentially devastating consequences," doctors' leaders have said.

The British Medical Association (BMA) warned scrapping restrictions while a significant proportion of the population was still not fully vaccinated, would allow the virus to “retighten its grip” and put more lives at risk.

It comes as those who are clinically extremely vulnerable have been advised to avoid people who have not been vaccinated against Covid when the rules relax.

Mr Johnson confirmed on Monday that most mandatory restrictions will end next week but acknowledged the pandemic “is not over” and appealed to people to proceed with caution.

The PM said postponing the easing of restrictions into the autumn would risk reopening at a time when schools are back from their summer holidays and people are spending more time indoors as the weather turns cold.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said there was no "perfect time" to reopen but added this was the "right time" for the easing of restrictions.

He told ITV News the government was taking a "cautious approach" and had been "building the vaccine wall in order to have those defences in place".

'We need to learn to live with this virus'

He added: "We need to learn to live with this virus and that is the balance The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor were clear on yesterday."

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA council chair, said that by going ahead on July 19, the government was reneging on its promise to be led by the data and the impact on the NHS.

“It’s irresponsible – and frankly perilous – that the government has decided to press ahead with plans to lift the remaining Covid-19 restrictions on July 19,” he said.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

“The BMA has repeatedly warned of the rapidly rising infection rate and the crippling impact that Covid-related hospitalisations continue to have on the NHS, not only pushing staff to the brink of collapse but also driving up already lengthy waiting times for elective care.

“The Prime Minister repeatedly emphasised the importance of a slow and cautious approach, but in reality the government is throwing caution to the wind by scrapping all regulations in one fell swoop – with potentially devastating consequences.”

Lockdown rules in England: What's changing from July 19

What has happened to social distancing and the rule of six?

The 'one metre plus' rule has been scrapped entirely, as of July 19 in England. However, some guidance to maintain social distancing in certain situations will remain in place of the legal restrictions.

Social distancing guidance will continue if someone is Covid positive and self-isolating, or in airports, or other ports of entry, to avoid travellers arriving from amber or red-list countries mixing with those from green list areas.

Limits on social contact in England have disappeared, meaning the end of the rule of six indoors and the limit of 30 people for outdoor gatherings.

Do I still need to wear a face mask?

There is now no legal requirements to wear face coverings - but guidance still encourages using masks in some settings, including hospitals, healthcare settings and in crowded enclosed public spaces.

Has the working from home guidance changed?

The guidance on working from home has gone. It's ultimately down to employers to decide whether to keep staff at home or in the office, but the government say employers are able to plan the return of staff to the workplace.

What about weddings and funerals?

The current limits on numbers of people who can attend weddings, funerals and other life events has ended.

What's happening in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The changes to Covid rules announced by Boris Johnson, only impact England and will not change regulations in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

The Welsh Government “would like to move together” with other parts of the UK in lifting coronavirus restrictions but will only do so if it is “right for Wales”, health minister Eluned Morgan said on Monday 5 July.

As of July 19, restrictions in Scotland have eased, with all areas of the country moving to level 0. The government is aiming to lift all major restrictions in Scotland by August 9.

In Northern Ireland, some significant restrictions have already been eased including allowing the resumption of live music and the lifting of caps on organised outdoor gatherings.

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Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chairwoman of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said the body did not generally involve itself in public debate but “we felt it necessary to say caution is vital” regarding July 19.

“We need everyone to think very carefully and responsibly about what they’re doing personally: Just because the law changes doesn’t mean that what we do as individuals has to change,” she told ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme.

Labour has also criticised the government over the unlocking saying it had created a "confusing mess".

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy told ITV News: "The prime minister has been hailing freedom day for several weeks, implying there’s going to be some kind of bonfire of the regulations in one great Big Bang moment, and then in the last 24 hours has had to row back on that and is now saying proceed with caution.

"What he’s effectively doing is shifting the burden of those public health decisions onto businesses, onto frontline workers, and onto the general public when what we want most is clarity."

The latest daily official figures showed cases continue to surge with a further 34,471 laboratory-confirmed infections in the UK as of 9am on Monday.

Under current modelling, the peak of the wave is not expected before mid-August, when there could be 1,000 to 2,000 hospital admissions per day, with deaths expected to reach between 100 and 200 per day.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said there was “considerable uncertainty” as to how the disease would play out in the coming weeks.

“I sympathise with the political message that this can’t go on forever but on the other hand we really don’t want to get to a situation where things get so bad that we have to reimpose restrictions and it’s a very delicate balancing act to get that right,” he said.

What's changing on 19 July in England?

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said there was “ample evidence” vaccines were dramatically reducing the risk of death and incidence of severe disease.

“Although hospitalisation rates are rising rapidly at present, we can expect these to have slowed substantially within the next week or two,” he said

“That does not mean that relaxing restrictions has no risk. But I would argue leaving Step 4 (lockdown lifting) till the autumn carries a far greater risk.”

The government’s decision means from next Monday social distancing rules will end and the wearing face masks will no longer be compulsory, although venues such as nightclubs are being urged to require “Covid certification” as a condition of entry.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will announce on Tuesday whether restrictions can be eased across the country on July 19 as planned.

Ahead of her statement to the recalled Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon said last week that with cases in Scotland at record levels any relaxation would require care and caution.

The Welsh Government is expected to set out its next steps on Wednesday.

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