Wearing face masks set to become voluntary after step four, Boris Johnson confirms

5 July 2021, 17:08 | Updated: 5 July 2021, 23:55

By Will Taylor

Face masks will no longer be legally required and the one-metre social distancing rule will be scrapped after step four of unlocking - set for July 19, Boris Johnson has announced.

As part of the fourth and final easing of England's lockdown, there will be no further limits to how many people can meet indoors or outside either.

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

The Prime Minister said: "We have to balance the risks, the risks of the disease which the vaccines have reduced but very far from eliminated and the risks of continuing with legally enforced restrictions that inevitably take their toll on people's lives and livelihoods, on people's health and mental health.

"And we must be honest with ourselves that if we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer, and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves, when will we be able to return to normal?

"And to those who say we should delay again - the alternative to that is to open up in winter when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all this year."

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Mr Johnson set out a five point plan for the nation to live with Covid. He stressed a final decision on July 19 has not yet been made, and he will announce if it has on July 12.

The first measure Mr Johnson announced was that the interval between vaccine jabs will be reduced from 12 weeks to eight, with a view to getting all over 18s double jabbed by mid-September.

Legal restrictions will be replaced with a focus on people making their own decisions about managing the virus. All businesses will be allowed to return, including nightclubs, and cultural events like sports and theatre will not have a limit on audiences.

The one metre-plus rule on social distancing will be scrapped and mask wearing will no longer legally be required, though Mr Johnson suggested people may choose to do so if they live in a place where cases are rising or when meeting in enclosed spaces with others they don't usually see.

This has proved to be an area of contention, with Mr Starmer saying mask wearing should continue in enclosed places and public transport.

"To throw off all protections at the same time when the infection rate is still going up is reckless," he said.

"We need a balanced approach, we need to keep key protections in place, including masks, including ventilation and crucially, something we've been asking for through the pandemic, proper payments to those who need to self-isolate."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan is considering telling people in the capital to keep using masks.

"The wearing of face coverings on public transport helps to reduce the spread of Covid, and crucially gives Londoners confidence to travel on the network, which is vital to our economic recovery," he said.

"Further discussions are now planned with Transport for London, the Department for Transport and other transport providers before we decide our next steps."

The Unite trade union, which represents public transport workers, said it would be "an act of gross negligence by the Government" if the requirement to wear masks is dropped.

Read more: "Optimist by nature": Business Sec confident for full reopening in England on July 19

The Government will no longer tell people to work from home and no Covid certificate will be automatically required to get into a venue or event, though businesses can choose to use it.

The third measure is a new test-and-trace approach that looks to change the rules about self-isolation for people who are fully vaccinated and children.

People with two jabs who return from amber list countries will not need to isolate on return as part of the fourth measure, while the fifth point is that at high risk times, such as the winter, the Government will "retain contingency measures" but seek to avoid reimposing restrictions.

The move comes despite doctors previously asking for some measures to remain, such as wearing face masks.

Some scenarios, such as on board planes, may see companies ask for restrictions to stay, too. EasyJet and Ryanair have confirmed they will still require passengers to wear masks.

The major unlocking is expected to see rising cases but ministers think that vaccinations will prevent major rises in hospitalisations and deaths.

Analysis by the Press Association shows all four nations in the UK are seeing a third wave of Covid cases.

It has caused a rise in the number of people in hospital but that increase has not happened at the same speed or scale as seen during the second wave, an indicator that vaccines are weakening the link between new cases and serious illness.

Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said he would wear a mask if any crowded indoors setting, if asked by a "competent authority" and as a "common courtesy" if others felt uncomfortable.