Boris Johnson faces a growing revolt over plans to end most Covid restrictions on 19 July – including the mandatory wearing of face masks on public transport and in hospitals – as half of the public now say they want “freedom day” to be delayed.
Last night, as doctors and other NHS workers demanded that mask-wearing continue in hospitals, regional political leaders broke ranks, saying they would override the national government on the issue and strongly advise people to continue wearing masks on public transport.
Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, told the Observer that with Covid cases rising rapidly again, “freedom day” risked becoming “anxiety day” for huge numbers of vulnerable people, because the government was making unwise decisions.
“The government is simply wrong to frame everything from here as a matter of pure personal choice. It is not,” said Burnham. “Many people who are vulnerable to the virus have to use public transport and do their food shopping in person. That is why the wearing of face coverings in these settings should have remained mandatory. I will be strongly encouraging the people of Greater Manchester to continue to wear masks on public transport out of respect for others.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan is also involved in urgent talks with the government, Transport for London (TfL), private train operators, and trade unions as support grows for the wearing of face masks to remain mandatory on the capital’s transport network.
It is understood that Khan believes keeping the mask requirement for all transport modes would be the simplest and safest measure. He said last week that the use of face coverings reduces the spread of Covid “and crucially gives Londoners confidence to travel on the network, which is vital to our economic recovery”.
An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 73% of people now believe wearing masks on public transport should continue while 50% said that “freedom day”, when the vast majority of other controls are due to end, should be pushed back again beyond 19 July. This compared with just under a third (31%) who think the government should go ahead as planned. Only 10% think restrictions should have been lifted earlier.
Johnson and health secretary Sajid Javid are expected to confirm their plans for a mass lifting of government controls on Monday, ending social distancing, allowing all venues to open with no restrictions on numbers and drawing to a close the “work from home if you can” advice – despite Covid infections having risen last Friday to their highest level since early February.
But there are growing fears that the move will cause chaos, confusion and anger as more organisations and business go their own way and impose rules out of line with the new relaxed government regime. Last week it emerged that several restaurant and pub chains, including Rare Restaurants and City Pub Group, were planning to insist on mask-wearing and social distancing after 19 July.
Senior NHS figures are raising fears over the impact of ending mask-wearing in hospitals, saying it will mean more infections, including those among staff, and worsen the backlog of non-Covid-related operations, which now stands at more than five million.
Government officials are already examining whether fully vaccinated NHS workers should be allowed to avoid self-isolation to ease pressures.
Sarah-Jane Marsh, chief executive of Birmingham women’s and children’s NHS trust who served as director of testing at the government’s test and trace programme, said: “We are all worrying about how we will ensure members of the public wear any mask at all on our sites post the 19th. We are already facing huge challenges with adherence and have no real means to enforce it. It’s a legal requirement now but people are increasingly refusing and getting very assertive with it.”
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said a combination of self-isolation, growing pressures from infections and accumulated staff leave since the start of the pandemic was likely to create problems this summer. “One trust [is] predicting a 20% overall absence rate in three weeks resulting in 900 lost operations,” he said. “The Delta variant, now the dominant variant, is 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, first identified in Kent. The risk of nosocomial infection – patients and staff acquiring Covid-19 in healthcare settings – is therefore correspondingly higher.”
Ministers have also been contacted by unions representing shop workers about the threat to their health from the end of mask-wearing rules, with concerns that key workers, often in low-paying jobs, will be the ones placed at greatest risk.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is becoming increasingly vocal about the dangers of the government’s plans. While not referring to the prime minister by name, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said that allowing the disease to spread and infect others “by not implementing consistently proven actions that prevent infections, reduce spread, prevent disease and save lives is immoral, unethical and non-scientific”.