Scottish Government insist face masks to stay as Boris Johnson unveils plans for easing restrictions in England

The Scottish Government has insisted face masks remain “hugely important” as Boris Johnson unveiled plans for scrapping restrictions in England in just two weeks’ time.

Masks are set to remain mandatory in Scotland

At a Downing Street press conference the Prime Minister placed an emphasis on trusting the public’s judgement as he said the legal requirement for mask-wearing and lifted social distancing requirements would end.

It comes ahead of the so-called “freedom day” in England on July 19, with a decision on the exact date due next week.

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Mr Johnson said: “We’re seeing rising hospital admissions and we must reconcile ourselves sadly to more deaths from Covid.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces the plan easing of restrictions in England at a Downing Street press conference

“In these circumstances we must take a careful and a balanced decision.

“And there’s only one reason why we can contemplate going ahead to step four in circumstances where we’d normally be locking down further, and that’s because of the continuing effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.

“And we must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer, and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves ‘when will we be able to return to normal?’

“And to those who say we should delay again – the alternative to that is to open up in winter when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all this year.”

The decision to scrap mask-wearing was immediately branded “reckless” by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and the Scottish Government has insisted face coverings will continue have a role to play in the fight against the coronavirus.

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As the First Minister has set out, we will have to manage living with COVID-19 for some time to come, even when we are able to move beyond Level 0.

"While we hope we are in the process of emerging from the pandemic, case rates at the moment underline the fact that this virus is still with us.

"Physical distancing, face coverings, hand-washing, staying at home if you have symptoms and getting tested, some flexibility from employers with regards home-working and – above all – getting vaccinated will all continue to be important tools in helping keep transmission down, and part of the collective, civic duty we all owe to each other.

“Face coverings are a hugely important mitigation in the fight against COVID-19 as they create a physical barrier that helps stop the virus spreading from an infected person, while providing a degree of protection to the wearer against exposure to the virus. At least for a period, we are therefore likely to require the continued wearing of face coverings in certain settings — for example, shops and public transport.

"We are engaging with a range of sectors ahead of final decisions being made.”

The changes in England come despite ministers admitting “hospitalisations, serious illness and deaths from Covid will continue”.

Mr Johnson insisted he must “balance the risk” of the disease from the virus and restrictions which “inevitably take their toll on people’s lives and livelihoods, on people’s health and mental health”.

Under the plans in England there will be no limits on social contact, meaning the end of the orders such as the “rule of six” and restrictions on guests at weddings and mourners at funerals.

While the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be lifted, guidance will suggest people may like to do so in crowded areas.

All remaining businesses will be able to reopen, including nightclubs, while capacity caps will be lifted and bars and restaurants will no longer be restricted to table service. It also sees the end of the work from home order.

The limit on named care home visitors will be also be scrapped, but infection control measures will remain in place.

Mr Johnson also made clear there would be no requirement for the so-called vaccine passports, but admitted firms will be able to set up the system themselves.

The gap between vaccine doses for under-40s will also be reduced in England from 12 weeks to eight, meaning that all adults will have the opportunity to be double-jabbed by mid-September.

A new poll by YouGov suggests that 71 per cent of people believe face coverings should continue to be mandatory on public transport once restrictions are lifted.

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth warned the Government’s strategy “accepts infections will surge further and continue to rise steeply”.

He told the Commons: “Some of those hospitalised will sadly die and thousands upon thousands, mostly children and younger people but others as well, will be left exposed to a virus mainly because they have no vaccination protection – but we also know even when doubled jabbed you can catch and transmit the virus – and many of them will be at risk of serious long-term chronic illness, the personal impact of which may be felt for years to come.

“Even though the vaccination may have broken the link with mortality, there are still questions about the link between morbidity.”

It comes one day after Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said that infection rates and hospitalisations will be taken into account ahead of the Scottish Government’s planned move to level 0 on July 19.

The First Minister had previously said unlocking would depend only on vaccination rates, and not be linked to levels of infection.

Earlier on Monday Douglas Ross had urged the Scottish Government to stick to its timetable of moving Scotland to Level 0 later this month, while simultaneously attacking it for “critical failures” which have resulted in rising case numbers.

The Scottish Conservative leader said that despite Scotland being a European Covid hotspot, problems with the Test & Protect system, and “failures” within the vaccination programme, Nicola Sturgeon had to ease lockdown restrictions as originally planned.

He added: “It would be completely unforgivable if the SNP’s failure to get on top of rising cases, their failure to support an effective Test & Protect system and their failures in getting vaccines in people’s arms fast enough meant further devastating delays for individuals and businesses.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Green health spokeswoman, Gillian Mackay, said Scotland could not follow the Prime Minister’s plans while it has the highest rates in Europe.

“Scotland has the highest rates of infection in Europe according to the World Health Organisation. We simply cannot afford to follow an approach which regards increasing this further as collateral. With only half the population fully vaccinated, letting the virus run free is putting people at risk,” she said.

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