Boris Johnson to confirm whether vast majority of legal Covid restrictions will be ditched on 19 July
Despite the concerns of some scientists, who have recently called for a delay, the expectation is that the prime minister will rubber-stamp a decision to discard large swathes of the measures that have governed people’s lives since the onset of the pandemic.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said on Sunday he was “confident” the government could press ahead with stage four of the roadmap, allowing venues such as nightclubs to reopen, lifting social distancing measures and removing indoors socialising limits.
However, he also conceded it was possible daily hospital admissions could peak in the thousands – just days after Sajid Javid admitted daily cases of new infections could exceed 100,000 later in the summer after restrictions are ditched by the government.
At a press conference on Monday, Mr Johnson is expected to confirm the final decision, telling the country “we are tantalisingly close to the final milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown”.
Urging caution, he will add: “The plan to restore our freedoms must come with a warning. While the phenomenal vaccine rollout has offered every adult some protection against the virus, and the crucial link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths is weakened, the global pandemic is not yet over.
“Cases will rise as we unlock, so as we confirm our plans today, our message will be clear. Caution is absolutely vital, and we must all take responsibility so we don’t undo our progress, ensuring we can protect our NHS.”
His remarks come after Mr Zahawi also signalled a stark shift in tone on Sunday, saying that new guidance published tomorrow will be issued, with the public “expected” to wear face coverings in indoor enclosed places, such as public transport.
The guidance will not be legally binding, but just last week Mr Johnson suggested people “might choose” to wear face masks in crowded places, while cabinet ministers have also recently claimed there will be lots of people who want to “shed those masks”.
Downing Street said the unlocking would be based on four tests – the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence that the vaccine is causing a reduction in hospitalisations and deaths, that infection rates do not risk a surge in hospital admissions, and that no new variants of concern throw progress off track.
No 10 added that an analysis from Public Health England (PHE) and the University of Cambridge suggests that vaccines have so far prevented an estimated 8.5 million infections and 30,000 deaths in England alone.
According to the latest government statistics, the UK recorded 31,772 positive cases of the virus on Saturday while 26 deaths were also confirmed.
Quizzed on hospitalisations on Sunday and whether projections of 3,000 daily admissions were possible, Mr Zahawi told Times Radio: “Clearly all those scenarios are possible, hence why next week what you’ll hear from us is that we proceed to step four with caution, with very clear guidelines on things like the expectation to wear masks in crowded spaces.”
He added: “The virus is not over by a long way — we have to be careful. There are no easy decision.”