England will move to the final stage of easing Covid restrictions on July 19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed, in what is being widely called Freedom Day.
This means almost all legal restrictions on social contact will be removed.
But the prime minister said it was vital to proceed with “caution”, warning “this pandemic is not over”.
The peak of the current wave is not expected before mid-August and could lead to between 1,000 and 2,000 hospital admissions per day, according to government scientists.
Earlier, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons cases could reach 100,000 a day later in the summer but he did not believe this would put “unsustainable pressure on the NHS”.
Vaccinations have created a “protective wall”, which would mean we could “withstand a summer wave”, he added.
Boris Johnson later told a Downing Street press conference, “Coronavirus continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday July 19 to life as it was before Covid.”
He added that he hoped the roadmap would be “irreversible” but “in order to have that, it has also got to be a cautious approach”.
While virtually all legal restrictions will be lifted, some guidance will remain.
The legal requirement to wear masks in some enclosed public places will be removed but they will still be “expected and recommended” in crowded indoor areas.
Nightclubs will also be allowed to reopen for the first time since March 2020 and capacity limits will be removed for all venues and events.
There will no longer be any limits on how many people can meet and the 1m-plus distancing rule will be removed.
But nightclubs and other venues with large crowds will be encouraged to use Covid status certification – so-called domestic vaccine passports – “as a matter of social responsibility”, the prime minister said.
These would allow people to show they are double-jabbed, have had a negative test result or have natural immunity after recovering from Covid-19.
In guidance published after the press conference, the government said it “reserves the right” to make certification mandatory in certain venues if necessary in the future.
Government guidance to work from home where possible will be lifted, but ministers are encouraging a gradual return to the workplace.
Javid also said people should act with “personal responsibility” and “try to meet people outside where possible”.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has apologised for “an error of judgement” in scrapping most coronavirus restrictions in the country too soon.
The easing three weeks ago led to infection levels surging to their highest this year as nightlife resumed for large numbers of young people.
Curbs on bars, restaurants and nightclubs were reimposed on Friday.
Previously, Rutte had refused to take any blame for opening up, describing it as a “logical step”.
On Saturday, the country’s public health institute reported more than 10,000 new Covid cases, the highest number in a single day since December.
But so far this has not translated into a significant increase in hospital admissions, as most of the new cases are among young people.
More than 46% of the Netherlands’ adult population – mostly from older age groups – is fully vaccinated. More than 77% have received at least one dose.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Rutte said, “What we thought was possible turned out to be wrong in practice. We made a miscalculation, we are disappointed about it and we apologise,” he said.
The decision to reinstate many restrictions – just two weeks after they were lifted – has led to strong criticism of the prime minister.
The measures are expected to last until Aug 13.
Rutte’s apology comes as countries across Europe face rising numbers of cases of the Delta variant.