Boris Johnson is struggling to contain an apparent Cabinet split today as ministers openly said they will ditch face masks the moment they are not compulsory – and suggested that should happen on July 19.
George Eustice dismissed the idea he would keep wearing face coverings when they are not required, saying: ‘I want to get back to normal.’
He also reiterated that the plan is for ‘all legal restrictions’ to lift in England on the so-called Covid ‘Freedom Day’ next month.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak gave a similar message as he said it is his ‘strong expectation’ that the unlocking will go ahead on schedule. Asked at the Times CEO summit if he would stop wearing masks when they are not legally required, Mr Sunak said: ‘Yes, as soon as possible.’
Meanwhile, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg ramped up expectations of curbs being fully removed as he told MPs that the description of July 19 as a ‘terminus point’ is likely to mean Covid certificates and other rules are dropped completely.
However, in signs of tensions at the heart of government, Downing Street said the PM is only aiming to ‘get back as close to normal as is possible’ and ‘no final decisions have been taken’.
Nicola Sturgeon suggested earlier this week that the Scottish government could keep advising people to wear masks beyond August even if they are not mandatory.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also warned that they should still be required on the Tube and buses as they give people ‘confidence’ they are safe.
George Eustice (right) dismissed the idea he would keep wearing face coverings when they are not required, saying: ‘I want to get back to normal.’ Asked at the Times CEO summit if he would stop wearing masks when they are not legally required, Rishi Sunak (left) said: ‘Yes, as soon as possible.’
Boris Johnson (pictured on a visit to Aldershot barracks today) appears increasingly fixed on the July 19 unlocking after internal government assessments warned keeping even limited rules for longer would spell disaster for the hospitality sector and hundreds of thousands of jobs
Malta and Ibiza set to join ‘green list’ amid row over ending quarantine for double-jabbed Brits
Ministers are preparing to lift Covid travel restrictions on the Balearic islands and Malta today amid a Cabinet row over dropping ‘amber list’ rules for the double jabbed.
The list of destinations where quarantine-free travel is allowed is set to be expanded at a crunch meeting, in a glimmer of hope for would-be holidaymakers.
Plans to drop ‘amber list’ restrictions for the double jabbed will also be considered – with a Cabinet split emerging over how soon it should happen.
However, even if the rules are loosened it will be of limited use as Britons still face tough curbs imposed by other countries – who are alarmed at the spike in infections caused by the Indian, or Delta, variant.
Angela Merkel last night urged all EU states to follow Germany’s lead by requiring travellers from the UK to quarantine.
But Environment Secretary George Eustice said today that Mrs Merkel’s stance was ‘unjustified’.
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Eustice accepted that some people might want to continue with face coverings and they could be ‘advisory in some settings’.
But he suggested that he personally would be abandoning them as soon as he can.
‘Well, what we want to do on July 19, and the Prime Minister said that the data looks good to be able to have that end, is to remove all of the legal restrictions,’ he told Sky News.
‘That’s all of the legal requirements to do things, to be taken away completely.
‘Now, whether there will still be some people who might choose to wear masks or whether it may be advisory in some settings, that’s a separate matter.
‘But the objective of that final stage is to remove the legal requirement to do these things.’
Asked if he would still wear a mask once restrictions end, Mr Eustice said: ‘I wouldn’t, no.
‘I have to be honest, once I’m told that it’s safe not to, I want to get back to normal. I think a lot of people will want to shed those masks.’
The PM’s spokesman struck a markedly different tone when asked if there would be no legal requirement for wearing masks.
‘We want to make sure we can get back to normal as soon as it is safe to do so,’ he said.
‘That is very much our aim but we haven’t made any final decisions about post-step four measures and what will and will not be required.’
He added: ‘As regards specifically to what measures will or won’t be in place when we move to step four, that decision has yet to be taken.’
Pressed on why Mr Eustice was making such comments on TV if no decision had been taken, the spokesman said: ‘All I can say is that we continue to consider the latest data and we will take a final decision in due course.
‘It is entirely right to say that we do want to remove as many restrictions as are safe to do so once we take the step to step four.’
There are fears of chaos if the government does not give total clarity on the rules around face coverings and social distancing from July 19.
Ending all legal restrictions would mean dropping limits on indoor mixing, as well as social distancing in bars and restaurants.
Work-from-home guidance is also expected to be ditched on the landmark date, although ministers are unlikely actively to urge people to return to office.
The PM appears increasingly fixed on the unlocking after internal government assessments warned keeping even limited rules for longer would spell disaster for the hospitality sector and hundreds of thousands of jobs.
However, it is understood there is almost no chance the date will be brought forward to July 5 despite immense pressure from Tory MPs.
Questions have been raised over how shops and restaurants could be prevented from demanding masks are worn – and whether customers will have the right to come on the premises if they refuse.
There are also concerns about grey areas if train, bus, and taxi firms want to make wearing masks a condition of travel.
And it is unclear what will happen to the obligation to wear masks on flights, which looks likely to remain in place.
Indicating that Mr Khan would support keeping masks after July 19, a spokesman said yesterday: ‘Evidence shows that the wearing of facemasks gives many Londoners the confidence that they can travel safely on public transport.
‘People feeling confident they can travel on our tubes, buses and trains as they get busier will be a vital part of encouraging more people into central London as restrictions are lifted further, and it is something that we will continue to look at closely.’
Mr Rees-Mogg insisted ‘terminus’ is an ‘end point and so it should be’ today as he hinted that the Covid-status certification system will be abandoned.
The system could show whether people have tested negative for coronavirus or had the vaccine to allow them access to certain events and venues.
Conservative MP Chris Green said he would have expected Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove to have appeared before MPs to set out the arguments over the project – including the ethics, practicality or necessity of it.
He asked: ‘Does the Leader of the House share my view that if terminus day is to live up to its name then there will be no need for this scheme to go ahead?’
Mr Rees-Mogg replied in the Commons: ‘As I said last week, terminus is Paddington not Crewe.
‘It is the end of the line, it is not an interchange and that must be the key part of terminus day.
‘Lots of evidence has been gathered in relation to Covid status certificates. Final decisions have not been made, but the Government will update the House on the road map as it continues.
‘But his point on terminus is right, it is an end point and so it should be.’
Internationally, health ministers from G7 countries earlier this month agreed on the need to work together to develop ‘mutual recognition of testing and vaccination certificates across countries’.
Domestically, a review into the potential use of certification had been due to report last month but was delayed.
The Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) has said the certification should not be a part of the planned rolling back of restrictions and should be scrapped.
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Eustice accepted that some people might want to continue with face coverings and they could be ‘advisory in some settings’
The First Minister brought her country into line with England by pushing the country’s downgrading to Level Zero back to July 19 because of the spread of the Indian variant.
She pledged to scrap all laws covering Covid restrictions by August 9 – but admitted that Scots might well be asked voluntarily to continue social distancing and wear masks in some situations after that date.
Scotland was meant to have its own relative Freedom Day on June 28, but rates of infection, particularly across the most populous central belt, led to today’s announcement.
Ms Sturgeon told Holyrood that life would feel ‘much, much less restrictive’ after August 9.
She also pledged to ‘encourage support’ for continued home working after workplaces are fully able to reopen.
Nicola Sturgeon raised the prospect of some Scottish Covid restrictions remaining in place into the autumn earlier this week as she postponed ending the country’s lockdown
WHAT HAVE STUDIES SHOWN ABOUT FACE MASKS AND COVID?
Research on how well various types of masks and face coverings protect against coronavirus has varied but experts and politicians have generally leaned towards the idea that the chance of some protection is better than none.
In the UK, face coverings were first made mandatory in for public transport in June and later for shops and other indoor spaces in July.
Here’s what studies have shown so far about whether masks work:
FACE MASKS LOWER VIRUS R RATE (JANUARY 2021)
Researchers at Boston University in the US found wearing face masks is an effective way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The study, published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, found a 10 per cent rise in self-reported mask wearing is associated with a three-fold increase in the odds of keeping the R number – the number of others each person with coronavirus infects – below 1.
Co-author of the study Ben Rader, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston University, said: ‘An important finding of this research is that mask wearing is not a replacement for physical distancing.’
INFECTIOUS DROPLETS WILL STILL SLIP THROUGH (DECEMBER 2020)
Scientists at New Mexico State University in the US found wearing a cloth mask may not shield the user totally from coronavirus because infected droplets can slip through, but it would significantly reduce how many.
‘Wearing a mask will offer substantial, but not complete, protection to a susceptible person,’ said Dr Krishna Kota, an associate professor at the university who led the research.
The study found while all masks blocked at least 95 per cent of droplets from coughs and sneezes – there was still a risk of the disease being passed on.
A MASK ‘WILL ALWAYS BE BETTER THAN NOTHING’ (DECEMBER 2020)
Research by the University of Massachusetts Lowell and California Baptist University in the US found wearing a used three-layer surgical mask can reduce the number of small droplets that are released into the air by two thirds.
Co-author Dr Jinxiang Xi said: ‘It is natural to think that wearing a mask, no matter new or old, should always be better than nothing.
‘Our results show that this belief is only true for particles larger than five micrometers, but not for fine particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers.’
MASK-WEARERS EQUALLY LIKELY TO CATCH VIRUS (NOVEMBER 2020)
A study by Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark suggested face masks may only offer the wearer limited protection against Covid infection.
Researchers found there was no statistically significant difference in the number of people who contacted the virus in a group wearing masks in public compared to a group that did not do so.
The study was carried out in April and May when Danish authorities did not recommend wearing face coverings.
MASK LEADS TO THOUSANDS FEWER COUGH DROPLETS (AUGUST 2020)
Research by Edinburgh University in Scotland suggested cloth face masks are effective at reducing the amount of droplets spread by coughing or sneezing.
The findings suggest a person standing two metres from someone coughing without a mask is exposed to 10,000 times more droplets than from someone standing half a metre away wearing a basic single layer mask.
Professor Paul Digard, of the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: ‘The simple message from our research is that face masks work.
‘Wearing a face covering will reduce the probability that someone unknowingly infected with the virus will pass it on.’
N95 MEDICAL MASKS COULD PREVENT 99% OF SPREAD (AUGUST 2020)
A study by Duke University in North Carolina, US, found N95 masks are the most effective masks at reducing the spread of Covid-19.
The research published in the journal Science Advances, studied 14 types of face coverings.
Co-author Dr Eric Westman said: ‘If everyone wore a mask, we could stop up to 99 percent of these droplets before they reach someone else.
‘In the absence of a vaccine or antiviral medicine, it’s the one proven way to protect others as well as yourself.’
SURGICAL COVERINGS JUST AS GOOD AS N95 MASKS (MARCH 2020)
A University of Oxford study published on March 30 last year concluded that surgical face masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 respirators for doctors, nurses and other health care workers.
N95 respirators are made of thick, tightly woven and moulded material that fits tightly over the face and can stop 95 percent of all airborne particles, while surgical masks are thinner, fit more loosely, and more porous.
The Oxford analysis of past studies – which has not yet been peer reviewed – found that surgical masks were worth wearing but any face mask is only as good as other health and hygiene practices.