'If not now, when?': PM defends 'Freedom Day' as most restrictions lift in England

18 July 2021, 22:30 | Updated: 19 July 2021, 18:24

England's 'Freedom Day' will go ahead on Monday
England's 'Freedom Day' will go ahead on Monday. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Boris Johnson has justified "Freedom Day" in England as almost all remaining mandatory Covid restrictions come to an end.

July 19 marks the end of many rules that have dominated people's lives since being introduced throughout 2020 to slow or stop Covid's spread.

From today, there are no limits on how many people can meet or attend events, nightclubs can reopen, and table service will not be necessary in pubs and restaurants.

READ MORE: July 19 'Freedom Day': Everything you need to know - explained

However, Boris Johnson - who held a press briefing at 5pm today - has pleaded for people to take personal responsibility in place of Government instructions, urging "prudence and respect for other people". He previously warned the pandemic has not ended.

The PM's own circumstances highlight this – he will miss the reopening because he is self-isolating after being a close contact of Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid.

There was a backlash when news was announced Mr Johnson could dodge quarantining through a test scheme - and now he will not be leaving the country retreat of Chequers until July 26.

"We're doing a big opening up. If we don't do it now we'll be opening up in the autumn and winter months when the virus has the advantage of the cold weather," the Prime Minister said in a video.

Read more: PM admits he 'briefly' considered not self-isolating but now will until 26 July

Read more: 'You couldn't make it up': Labour slam government over PM self-isolation U-turn

"We'll lose the precious firebreak we get with the school holidays.

"If we don’t do it now we've got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it? This is the right moment.

"But we’ve got to do it cautiously. We've got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there. Cases are rising, we can see the extreme contagiousness of the Delta variant."

Face masks and social distancing rules go

From Monday, all legal limits on the number of people who meet inside or outdoors will be removed, and businesses including nightclubs can open their doors again - however from October only those who have been double-jabbed will be allowed into nightclubs.

There will be no more limits on capacity for concerts, theatres and sports events and the one-metre plus rule for social distancing will end.

Face masks will no longer be legally required, though Mr Johnson has suggested wearing them in situations like crowded public transport, and some parts of the country, including Transport for London's services, are set to still require them.

No limits to named visitors to care homes will exist.

Read more: Masks to remain compulsory on public transport in London after Sadiq Khan intervention

Read more: Uber to keep 'no mask, no ride' policy after July 19

Work from home guidance will also go, with employers asked to plan to make sure staff return to the office safely.

Businesses can require Covid certification to allow entry to events or venues but there will be no legal compulsion to do so.

However, border controls through the traffic light system will remain and "contingency measures" will be retained for use if needed, though a return to restrictions will be avoided if possible, the Government said.

It also recommends continuing to keep up good hygiene, ventilating spaces and wearing a covering in enclosed or crowded places.

Worries over Freedom Day

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the plans to drop the requirement to wear masks was "reckless".

Experts have also voiced fears about the rise in cases expected to follow Monday's unlocking.

Among them is Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association, who warned recently that a wholesale lifting of restrictions is "irresponsible and frankly perilous".

He said rising cases have affected the NHS and pushed staff to "the brink of collapse" and said there could be "potentially devastating consequences".

But ministers hope rising cases will not be followed by a sharp increase in Covid-related deaths, with vaccines appearing to have weakened the link between infections and fatalities.

There are also fears that young people will remain susceptible as they are less likely to have received the vaccine by now, with older people prioritised in the rollout.

Vaccines 'weaken link between cases and deaths'

The Government said almost 60% of under 25s have received their first dose and are urged to ensure they get their second jab.

The interval between doses has been reduced from 12 weeks to eight to boost protection as the restrictions are eased.

Public Health England data suggests one dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs is 80% effective at stopping hospitalisation from the Delta variant, which rises to 96% after two doses, the Government said.

Double-jabbed people who have waited at least two weeks since their second dose will also be allowed to avoid quarantining if they come into contact with a Covid case from August 16.

However, they will still need to isolate if they test positive for Covid.

"We have this immense consolation and satisfaction that there is no doubt at all that the vaccine programme, the massive vaccination programme, has very severely weakened the link between infection and hospitalisation, and between infection and serious illness and death," Mr Johnson said.

"And that is the vital thing. So please, please, please be cautious. Go forward tomorrow into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people and the risks that the disease continues to present.

"And, above all, please, please, please when you're asked to get that second jab and get your jab, please come forward and do it."