The UK has made an abrupt U-turn on mask wearing, with a senior minister saying they should still be worn indoors after remaining coronavirus restrictions are lifted on July 19 as case numbers continue to rise sharply.
Boris Johnson had said that wearing masks in England would be a “personal choice” and the government would end the “legal obligation to wear a face covering”. The prime minister was also photographed not wearing a mask in a car on the way back from a Euro 2020 football match on Wednesday.
The government stance on masks has been criticised by scientists and opposition politicians as the Delta variant sweeps through the country. There were 32,367 new positive results recorded on Saturday.
Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister, on Sunday took a different stance to Johnson, suggesting that the government would advise people to act more cautiously. He told Sky News that the government was likely to still recommend masks after the legal obligations ceased.
“It’s important that we remain cautious and careful and the guidelines that we will set out tomorrow will demonstrate that, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor enclosed spaces and, of course, to remain vigilant with hands and face,” he said.
Zahawi also told the BBC that Johnson would emphasise caution when announcing that the final restrictions would end on July 19. “The guidelines will be very clear on things like mask wearing, there’s an expectation indoors, in crowded places and on public transport.”
The opposition Labour party have called for mask wearing to be mandatory on public transport. Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, on Sunday described the government’s policy as a “recipe for confusion”.
Johnson’s decision to press ahead with the easing of lockdown restrictions despite rapidly rising cases and hospital admissions was reiterated by the health secretary Sajid Javid, who said hospital waiting lists could rise to 13m as a result of extra pressure on the NHS.
Javid told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper he was “confidant” the July 19 easing would go ahead, but he was “shocked” that waiting lists could increase significantly.
“What shocked me the most is when I was told that the waiting list is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” he said. “Hearing that figure of 13m, it has absolutely totally focused my mind, and it’s going to be one of my top priorities to deal with because we can’t have that.”
Javid said dealing with the backlog, which is currently about 5.3m, was a top priority and pledged to clear it “as quickly as possible”. But he warned it would take a “considerable time to clear”.
Meanwhile, Zahawi downplayed reports suggesting that Downing Street was seeking to reduce the gap between first and second vaccine doses from eight to four weeks.
The Sunday Times reported that No 10 had asked the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to examine a reduction in interval as demand had fallen for first jabs. The government is expected to roll out a publicity blitz to encourage more 18-to-24-year-olds to go and get vaccinated.
But Zahawi suggested it was unlikely, noting that the eight-week gap gave “much better” protection from Covid-19. One government official said: “This is not likely to happen”.