Scientists and medical experts have urged caution as Boris Johnson prepares to tear up England’s coronavirus rules on July 19.
The Prime Minister will tell people that it will be left to their judgment how to reduce the risk posed by the virus, rather than expecting the Government to set out restrictions in law.
The approach is expected to mean that from “freedom day” in a fortnight’s time, face masks will no longer be required in many settings and social distancing restrictions will be removed in pubs and restaurants.
Mr Johnson, who will give further details at a press conference on Monday afternoon, said: “As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from Covid and exercise judgment when going about our lives.”
The Prime Minister is widely expected to announce the end of the one metre-plus rule in hospitality venues while the work-from-home order is expected to be dropped.
But Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which advises the Government, called for the continuation of “support and proportionate mitigations to keep us safe” from coronavirus.
Asked if he was more concerned about the Government’s messaging around the pandemic or the requirement to wear face masks potentially being dropped, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think both.
“I think we need very clear messaging and I think in certain spaces – crowded, badly ventilated spaces – masks are crucial mitigation.
“Not lockdown, but support and proportionate mitigations to keep us safe. Along with the vaccine, that’s the way out.”
Professor Susan Michie, an expert in health psychology and member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises ministers, told the Guardian: “Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate.”
Dr Nikki Kanani, NHS England’s medical director of primary care, stressed the importance of face masks in preventing the spread.
“I think one of the things that we know is, masks work,” she told Times Radio.
“Let’s see what the announcements are, but certainly, if there is advice to keep wearing masks, I know I will and I’ll be encouraging others to do so as well.”
Care minister Helen Whately told Times Radio that mask-wearing was likely to continue in health and social care settings, but she was looking forward to removing hers where she could.
“I’ll be looking at the guidance, I’ll be making a judgment, but I’m not keen to wear one when I don’t need one – personally, it’s not something I enjoy doing,” she told Times Radio Breakfast.
“But I’m also really aware that there will be circumstances, I’m expecting to continue in health and social care clearly, where people will need to continue to wear PPE, which includes masks.”
As Mr Johnson sets out his plans to the public, Health Secretary Sajid Javid will update MPs in the Commons.
The package of measures is expected to mean that mass events, including festivals, will also be allowed.
The Government will publish the results of its reviews into the use of so-called vaccine passports and the future of social distancing guidance.
Officials said the Prime Minister will provide an update on care home visits, while also pushing those who have not done so to take up the offer of a vaccine, with 86% of people in the UK having received at least one dose so far.
Ms Whately told Sky News she did not expect care home visits to “completely go back to normal” as “there will still have to be some precautions”.
At the weekend, Mr Javid used a Mail on Sunday column to say: “We are going to have to learn to accept the existence of Covid and find ways to cope with it – just as we already do with flu.”
Labour said the Health Secretary must now declare how many Covid-related deaths he is willing to accept if the disease is to be compared to flu.
Public Health England estimates that across the 2017/18 season, there were around 22,000 deaths linked to influenza in England.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “When Sajid Javid addresses the Commons he must explain what level of mortality and cases of long Covid he considers acceptable.”
The latest Government figures show that, as of 9am on Sunday, there had been an additional 24,248 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK – up 66% in the past week.
However, a further 15 people were recorded to have died within 28 days of testing positive, official figures stated on Sunday, in aN indication that vaccines are guarding against coronavirus-related deaths, with mortality down 1.6% in the past seven days.
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, said despite the rising number of infections, the NHS was “used to coping with pressures” and was prepared.
“As you have seen over the last 18 months of the pandemic, the NHS will manage,” he told BBC Breakfast.