Watch: Vaccines minister says it's 'as good a time as any' to lift COVID rules
Now is “as good a time as any” to lift England’s coronavirus restrictions, the vaccines minister has said.
Nadhim Zahawi was speaking as the country woke up to the so-called “Freedom Day” of 19 July, when most mandatory COVID-19 rules are scrapped.
He insisted the government was "doing the right thing" despite the current UK case numbers of 50,000 per day and warnings from scientists they could soon reach 200,000.
He told Sky News on Monday: “It is a step forward, an important step forward – there is no perfect time to take this step, this is as good a time as any, as (Professor) Chris Whitty has said, with the summer holidays and schools being out, which will hopefully bear down on the R number, the transition rate.”
He added: “So, I’m confident that we are doing the right thing.
“I think the vaccination programme has allowed us to take this step, to take it cautiously with this wall of protection among adults in the United Kingdom.
“Our border controls remain in place, our expectation and recommendation that people in crowded places continue to wear masks and take both personal and corporate responsibility, and it is great to see TfL (Transport for London) and others doing that.”
Face masks will be recommended in some spaces from Monday but are no longer a legal requirement.
However, London mayor Sadiq Khan has said face masks will remain compulsory on the capital’s transport network, while supermarkets will continue to ask customers to wear them.
Zahawi said: “We have to be careful, we have to remain vigilant.”
This echoed the sentiments of Boris Johnson, who said in a Twitter video on Sunday that the country had to proceed “cautiously”.
Johnson said: "If we don't do it now we've got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?
"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."
Social-distancing rules that, in one form or another, have governed people’s lives for more than a year finally ended on Monday morning at one minute past midnight.
Limits on social gathering have gone and the work-from-home guidance has ended.
Nightclubs, theatres and restaurants can fully reopen, while pubs are no longer restricted to table service.
Johnson is spending today self-isolating at his official country residence at Chequers after being “pinged” by NHS Test and Trace following a contact with health secretary Sajid Javid, who has tested positive for coronavirus.
Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak, who also met Javid on Friday, initially tried to get round the requirement to quarantine by saying they would join a daily workplace testing programme being trialled by the Cabinet Office.
However, they were forced into a hasty U-turn amid widespread public anger at their “special treatment” while tens of thousands of people were being forced to miss work or school and stay home.
With new cases of the virus already having passed the 50,000-a-day mark, some scientists have expressed concern at the ending of restrictions while the Delta variant is spreading so rapidly.
Professor Neil Ferguson – whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March 2020 – said daily cases could reach 200,000 before the current wave of the pandemic finally peaked.
He said that could result in 2,000 hospital admissions a day, leading to “major disruption” and further backlogs in NHS services.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of being “reckless”, saying it was a “mistake” to lift all the remaining restrictions in one go.
“We can already see that the infection rates are going through the roof, we know what’s going to happen with hundreds of thousands of people being asked to self isolate,” he said.
A number of nightclubs reopened at midnight at Monday for the first time since the pandemic began.
Outside Egg nightclub in north London, clubbers queued for more than an hour and cheered as the clock struck midnight, following a countdown from 10.
Fundraiser Chloe Waite, 37, who was first in the queue, said the occasion was “something we’re going to remember for a long time.”
“It’s going to be a special night,” she said.
“For me, this is a New Year’s-type event and something we’re going to remember for a long, long time and we might not get the opportunity for a while.”
In Leeds, people queued before entering Bar Fibre nightclub just after midnight.
“It feels so special,” said bar owner Terry George. “People are treating it like a very special occasion, like a New Year’s Eve type affair. Freedom Eve is what we’re calling it.
“Finally, we’re going to be able to dance. That’s the biggest thing, which is kind of a little bit sad really, because we’re given back something that’s our given right, to be able to dance in a bar, in a club.
“It should’ve been something that was there much earlier than this.”
Watch: Nightclubs open their doors at midnight on 'Freedom Day'