Covid: Restrictions in England most relaxed since pandemic began as cases surge

Revellers enjoy a night out in a London club for the first time since March 2020. Credit: AP

Covid restrictions in England are at their lowest level since the coronavirus pandemic began 16 months ago amid surging cases.

From Monday, face masks are no longer mandatory in shops and on public transport, limits on gathering have gone and the work from home guidance has ended.

Nightclubs have thrown open their doors to revellers for the first time since March 2020, theatres and restaurants can fully reopen, while pubs are no longer restricted to table service only.

Social-distancing rules which, in one form or another, have governed people’s lives for over a year finally ended on Monday morning at one minute past midnight.

Despite rising cases and hospitalisations, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told ITV News removing many of the remaining Covid restrictions in England was the "right step to take at this time" citing the success of the vaccination programme.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said lifting all the restrictions amid rising cases was "reckless".

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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Anyone travelling back from an amber list country - with the exception of France - no longer needs to isolate if they have been double-vaccinated or are under-18.

Travellers from red list countries must still isolate in an approved hotel for 10 days and anyone contacted by test and trace must self-isolate.

While rules have been lifted, government guidelines continue to urge caution, with people being urged to meet outside where possible, pubs to continue with table service and employers to encourage a gradual return to the workplace.

Mask-wearing and social distancing are no longer mandatory, but the government has urged people to exercise caution and many shops, attractions and transport bodies say face-coverings will still be required in their premises and vehicles.

Transport for London says face coverings are a "condition of carriage" on its services.

Mr Zahawi told ITV News: "As Chris Whitty has said there is no perfect time to take step four and get our lives as close to normal as possible but schools being out in the summer will bring a downward pressure on the R number, on the infection rate, that's a good thing.

"Obviously there's an upward pressure as step four means more social interaction. But we've severely weakened the link between infection rates and hospitlisation and ultimately death. " "It is cautious, but, I think, the right step to take at this time."

"There is no perfect time" - vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi says scrapping many remaining Covid restrictions is the "right step"

The easing of restrictions come amidst the highest levels of Covid cases since the peak of the second coronavirus wave back in January 2021.

With new cases of the virus already having passed the 50,000-a-day mark, some scientists have expressed concern at the ending of restrictions while the Delta variant is spreading so rapidly.

Sir Keir said: “This cannot go on, the public need clear leadership at this time, not this hypocritical way of trying to do things that just undermine confidence in the rules and put lives at risk.

“We can’t afford to get this wrong. The price will pay is too high.”

He added: “The chaotic, incompetent way Boris Johnson conducts himself is dangerous.

“It makes for bad government and it has deadly consequences for the British public.”

He said: “His character causes chaos. His leadership causes mayhem. Labour does not support the Government’s plan. Lifting all restrictions in one go is reckless.”

"We are heading for a NHS summer crisis" - Sir Keir Starmer says Boris Johnson's "recklessness" risks "plunging us back into restrictions again"

Sir Keir said Labour would keep measures recommending working from home, the mandatory wearing of face coverings and encouraging ventilation.

He said his party would also accelerate the vaccination programme for young people and improve the sick pay offer.

Professor Neil Ferguson – whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March 2020 – said cases could reach 200,000 before the current wave of the pandemic finally peaked.

He said that could result in 2,000 hospital admissions a day leading to “major disruption” and further backlogs in NHS services.

On Tuesday, the last day for which data was available, 730 patients were admitted to hospital.

Mr Johnson has appealed to people to exercise their new freedoms with caution.

The prime minister is spending so-called “freedom day” self-isolating at his official country residence at Chequers after being “pinged” by NHS Test and Trace following a contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who subsequently tested positive for the virus.

Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who also met Mr Javid on Friday, initially tried to get round the requirement to quarantine by saying they would join a daily workplace testing programme being trialled by the Cabinet Office.

However they were forced into a hasty U-turn amid widespread public anger at their “special treatment” while tens of thousands of people were being forced to miss work or school and stay home.

Mr Johnson will self-isolate until July 26, which will include the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the Commons goes into recess, and the two-year anniversary of him entering No 10, which is on Saturday.

Meanwhile businesses have warned of shortages on the shelves as the number of people off work after being pinged by the NHS Covid app continues to rise.

All Covid restrictions will be eased from Monday. Credit: PA

In a effort to alleviate pressure on the NHS, frontline staff in England who are fully jabbed are being told they may be exempted from quarantine if their absence may lead to “a significant risk of harm”.

Meanwhile in Scotland, where restrictions have been eased but not lifted, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also emphasised the need for caution.

The whole of the country has dropped to the lowest level of its five-tier system with social-distancing reduced to just one metre, although face coverings remain mandatory in shops and on public transport.

Ms Sturgeon said talk in England of “freedom day” was “not sensible” and that it was important to ease up on restrictions gradually.

It follows a series of rule changes in Wales which came in on Saturday, while in Northern Ireland regulations are expected to ease from July 26.