The Government has announced that it will drop rules about mask wearing in public, social distancing and working from home from 19th July.
The Prime Minister has announced that rules on working from home, mask wearing and social distancing will end on 19th July in England.
While Boris Johnson said people should not be ‘demob happy’, whether to wear a mask or not will, he stated, be down to “personal responsibility”. Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said he would advise people to continue to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces; when required to by an authority; or to make someone else feel comfortable.
The announcement has brought a mixed reaction. IPSE, the organisation for the self employed, welcomed it as “a huge relief” for many freelancers. However, it warned that the financial damage to the self-employed sector meant the Government must “monitor the situation of the worst-hit groups and be ready with a stimulus package to get them back on their feet”. Some in sectors such as hospitality, the arts or working in businesses reliant on commuters were keen to ‘get back to normal’.
However, union leaders and others are worried that allowing people to go on public transport without masks will make many people feel anxious about travelling to work at a time when the Delta variant is rising across the country.
Teaching unions expressed concern, with the National Education Union accusing the government of “neglectful and reckless decision-making”.
UNISON assistant general secretary Jon Richards said: “Now isn’t the time to throw caution to the wind, especially with infections on the rise. The economy is important, but so is public confidence.
“People want clarity from the government as restrictions are eased. They don’t need a confusing free-for-all, with ministers absolving themselves of any responsibility for public health.”
He added: “Face coverings and well-ventilated workspaces provide a level of reassurance and security to staff who deal with the public. Safety laws also require their employers to keep these workers safe. While protective safety kit is likely to remain compulsory in hospitals and care homes, healthcare workers need assurances that this will be so.
“Many other employees, who’ve spent the past 16 months working from home, will be more reluctant to step on to crowded buses, trains, trams and tubes if masks are no longer compulsory.”
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development [CIPD] said the removal of restrictions “shouldn’t signal a mass return to workplaces.” Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said a return to the office should be “down to individual organisations consulting with their people to agree working arrangements . . . ‘Freedom Day’ shouldn’t signal a mass return to workplaces, but it could signal the start of greater freedom and flexibility in how, when and where people work.”
He added: “Businesses shouldn’t rush to simply revert to how they used to work, now we have experience and evidence that it can be done differently . . . People generally want a mix of workplace and home working. Employers should be trying to understand and support individuals’ preferences over more flexible working arrangements where possible, balanced with meeting the needs of the business.”
Many employers have already announced plans to allow employees to work either wholly at home or in a hybrid way as restrictions are relaxed. For instance, the Bank of England has announced a pilot hybrid working scheme which will see all of its staff work for at least one day per week in the office from September this year. The scheme will be supported by a network of 250 “digital ninjas” – staff who have helped colleagues to adapt and benefit from new tools and technologies.
Already the Welsh government’s health minister has announced it will not rush into scrapping all restrictions on 19th July. It will announce details of its own plans on 14th July. Scotland says it will lift restrictions on 9th August, but could continue to require masks and Northern Ireland will review what it does on 8th July.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has also voiced concerns about public confidence if mask wearing on public transport is no longer compulsory.
On Tuesday the Health Secretary announced a further relaxing of restrictions, saying people in England who have been double vaccinated and those under 18 will not have to isolate if they come into contact with people with Covid from 16th August. Adults will need to have had their second vaccination at least 10 days beforehand.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson also announced an end to school bubbles in England from 19th July. Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, commented: “No school leader wants to have restrictions in place any longer than are needed, but there will be a sense of real concern amongst many that the worsening situation they see before their eyes is at odds with the government’s narrative of relaxation and return to normality.”