LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to unveil plans Monday to scrap mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing in England in two weeks’ time, despite surging coronavirus infections driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Johnson said he would set out how the country would “learn to live with this virus” — a major shift in tone from a leader who has previously painted COVID-19 as an enemy to be vanquished.
Before a televised news conference, Johnson signaled that mandatory measures would be replaced by personal choice after July 19, the date dubbed “freedom day” by Britain’s populist press.
“As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from COVID and exercise judgment when going about our lives,” Johnson said.
That message will be welcomed by lockdown-skeptic lawmakers in Johnson’s governing Conservative Party, who say the economic and social damage of restrictions outweighs the public health benefits.
But public health officials and scientists have urged caution, saying ditching masks and social distancing altogether could be dangerous. Psychologist Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s scientific advisory committee, said “proportionate mitigations” against the spread of the virus should stay in place.
“I think we need very clear messaging and I think in certain spaces — crowded, badly ventilated spaces — masks are crucial mitigation,” he told the BBC.
The government said Johnson will use a news conference on Monday to announce plans for rules on social distancing, face coverings and working from home after July 19, the date set for removing remaining restrictions on business and daily life.
Britain has recorded more than 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Western Europe. Confirmed infections have risen sharply from about 2,000 a day earlier this year to more than 20,000 a day in the past week. But the 122 coronavirus-related deaths reported were two fewer than the previous week.
Public health officials say Britain’s vaccination program has weakened the link between infections and deaths. So far, 86% of U.K. adults have received at least one vaccine dose and 63% are fully vaccinated.
The British government, which enforced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, has lifted restrictions for England in a series of steps that began with reopening schools in March. The fourth and final stage was delayed last month to provide time for more people to be vaccinated amid the rapid spread of the delta variant, which was first discovered in India.
The other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are following their own, broadly similar, road maps out of lockdown.
The government said in a statement that COVID-19 would “become a virus that we learn to live with as we already do with flu. This means that hospitalizations, serious illness and deaths from COVID will continue, albeit at a much lower level than before the vaccination program.”
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