British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people to show caution when nearly all remaining COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in England next week, saying an increase in cases underlined that the pandemic was by no means over.
From July 19, England will be the first part of Britain to lift the legal requirement to wear masks and for people to physically distance.
The government says Britain’s vaccination drive – one of the world’s fastest – has largely broken the link between infections and serious illness or death.
But what was once billed as “freedom day” is now being treated with wariness by ministers after a surge in cases and fears that there could be as many as 100,000 new infections a day over the northern hemisphere summer.
Mr Johnson set a sombre tone, defending his decision to lift most of the remaining restrictions by saying the four conditions the government set itself had been met but also warning the country that more people would die from the coronavirus.
“We think now is the right moment to proceed … but it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough – this pandemic is not over,” he said on Monday (British time).
“To take these steps we must be cautious and must be vaccinated,” he said, adding that England would register “more hospitalisations and more deaths from COVID”.
“I generally urge everyone to keep thinking of others and to consider the risks,” he said.
Earlier, Health Minister Sajid Javid told parliament that people should still wear masks in crowded areas such as public transport and should move back only gradually to workplaces. The government will also encourage businesses holding mass events to use health certification as a way to open up.
Mr Johnson said the final step of easing restrictions next week would be irreversible, as previously pledged, only if people act with caution.
“I hope that the roadmap is irreversible – we’ve always said that we hope that it will be irreversible – but in order to have an irreversible roadmap, we also said it’s got to be a cautious approach,” he said.
Business welcomed the move but also called on the government to offer clearer guidance.
Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said companies still did not have the full picture they needed.
“Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources,” she said.
After 18 months of pandemic, governments around the world have been wrestling with how and when to reopen their economies.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte conceded on Monday that coronavirus restrictions had been lifted in the Netherlands too soon and he apologised as infections surged to their highest levels of the year.
Britain has implemented one of the world’s swiftest vaccination programs, with more than 87 per cent of adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 66 per cent having received two.
The Conservative government argues that the fact that deaths and hospital admissions remain far lower than before, even though cases have risen sharply, is proof that the vaccines are saving lives and it is now safer to open up.
But the surge in infections to the highest rates since the winter has raised concern, with some epidemiologists saying the Euro football championships might have helped fuel the rise.
Britain, which ranks 20th in the world for per-capita reported deaths from COVID-19, on Monday reported a further 34,471 COVID-19 cases, up 26 per cent in a week, and six additional deaths within 28 days of a positive test.