It will no longer be a legal requirement for patients to wear face masks in any setting, the Prime Minister announced today.
In a media briefing this afternoon, Boris Johnson said while the legal requirement for wearing a mask is set to be removed from 19 July, ‘guidance will suggest where you might choose to do so’.
Laying out his plans ahead of next week’s decision on whether to lift Covid restrictions on 19 July, he said the Government planned to ‘change the basic tools that we have used to control human behaviour’.
He said: ‘We’ll move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.
‘From step four [of the Government’s roadmap] we will remove all legal limits on the numbers meeting indoors and outdoors. We will allow all businesses to reopen, including nightclubs. We will lift the limit on named visitors to care homes and on numbers of people attending concerts, theatre and sports events.’
He added: ‘We will end the “one metre plus” rule on social distancing and the legal obligation to wear a face covering – although guidance will suggest where you might choose to do so, especially when cases are rising and where you come into contact with people you don’t normally meet in enclosed spaces such as obviously crowded public transport.’
He later went on to emphasise that while ministers would ‘retain contingency measures’ for managing the virus during high-risk periods such as the winter, there would be an ’emphasis on strengthened guidance’ and the Government will ‘do everything possible to avoid re-imposing restrictions with all the costs that they bring’.
Covid vaccination certificates will not be required for going to events, added Mr Johnson – but he said businesses ‘can certainly make use of certification and the NHS app gives you a Covid pass as one way to show your Covid status’.
The virus will continue to be managed through the NHS Test and Trace system ‘that is proportionate to the pandemic’, he said, adding self-isolation will be required if the person tests positive or is told to do so by NHS Test and Trace.
Despite Mr Johnson’s plan for mandatory mask wearing to be dropped, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said during the media briefing he would wear one ‘particularly at this point when the epidemic is clearly significant and rising’.
He said the three scenarios he would use a face mask included indoors or crowded situations ‘because masks help protect other people, this is a thing we do to protect other people as it’s by far its principal aim’.
Another trigger for wearing a mask would be when asked to do so ‘by any competent authority’, he said – or lastly if it makes others feel less uncomfortable.
He said: ‘The second situation I would do it [in] is if I was required to by any competent authority – I would have no hesitation about doing that and I would consider that was a reasonable and sensible thing if they had good reasons to do that.
‘And the third thing is if someone else was uncomfortable if I did not wear a mask and as a point of common courtesy, of course I would wear a mask.’
Current Public Health England guidance outlining the requirements around masks states: ‘Face coverings are needed in NHS settings, including hospitals and primary or community care settings, such as GP surgeries.’
However, NHS England later clarified GPs cannot refuse to treat patients who present at their practice without a mask, noting it was not in fact a legal requirement to wear a face covering – though the advice was for patients to wear them in enclosed spaces, such as primary care services.
The BMA has called for the Government to keep some ‘targeted’ measures in place when wider restrictions lift – including the requirement to wear a mask in healthcare settings and on public transport.
It has warned that an ongoing ‘alarming’ rise in Covid cases means ‘it makes no sense to remove restrictions in their entirety in just over two weeks’ time’.
Responding to the announcement that wearing face masks will no longer be mandatory from 19 July, BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the emphasis on personal responsibility is ‘incoherent’ as the measure protects others, as opposed to the individual.
He said: ‘This cannot be about “personal choice” when the risk comes from others around you not wearing them.
‘It is inconceivable that the Government would allow for people, many of whom have no choice but to get public transport or be in confined places, to have to take the risk of becoming ill, particularly those who have not been fully vaccinated or cannot take the vaccine for health reasons.’
During the announcement today, Mr Johnson also revealed the plan to cut the interval between first and second Covid doses to eight weeks for all people under the age of 40.
He said the measure was to ensure ‘everyone over 18 should be double-jabbed by the middle of September’.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said over the weekend that there are ‘compelling’ health arguments to lift Covid restrictions on 19 July.