“IT is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough: this pandemic is not over. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday July 19 to life as it was before Covid.”

Those were the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week, as he confirmed the further easing of coronavirus restrictions across England from tomorrow (July 19) - dubbed Freedom Day by some.

From midnight tonight, people will no longer be required by law to wear masks in enclosed spaces, nor to social distance in public spaces.

Nightclubs and other businesses will be able to reopen, and music festivals can restart and people are no longer being encouraged to work from home.

There will be no requirement to scan into the NHS app when entering a restaurant, a gym, or any other venue.

Announcing that the easing of restrictions would go ahead during a Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister added: “This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family.”

So, if the pandemic is not over, and it still carries a risk to us all, why are restrictions designed to prevent its spread, being eased?

The Prime Minister continued: “We’ve come to a stage in the pandemic when there is no easy answer and no obvious date for unlocking.”

Delaying it to the autumn would risk reopening at a time when schools are back from their summer holidays and people are spending more time indoors as the weather turns cold, he said.

However, he also warned that the current wave of cases, due to the more infectious Delta variant, would result in more hospital admissions and sadly, more deaths.

And Ministers concluded that the four tests set for unlocking previously announced by the Government - the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence that vaccines are causing a reduction in hospital admissions and deaths, that infection rates do not risk a surge that would put “unsustainable” pressure on the NHS, and that no new variants of concern throw progress off track - are being met, allowing the easing of restrictions to proceed.

Chard & Ilminster News: BRIEFING: Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance on Monday
BRIEFING: Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance on Monday

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said experts were “cautious” in interpreting the data around the risk to the NHS.

“We cannot be quite as confident on this test as the others,” he said.

“But at this point, modelling data and other data would imply that if we go slowly with the next stage of the road map, the expectation is this will not reach the point where it is putting unsustainable pressure on the NHS.”

Prof Whitty said there was “no clear evidence” that a delay to reopening now would make a difference but “what is going to make a difference is going slowly”.

But the move is not being universally supported.

Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, told Health Secretary Sajid Javid in Parliament that he had adopted a “high-risk, indeed fatalistic approach” and “instead of caution he’s pushing his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belts off”.

Elsewhere, World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy on Covid-19, Dr David Nabarro, warned it was “too early to be talking about massive relaxation or freedom” despite the UK’s rollout of vaccines.

Regarding the Government’s switch to personal responsibility, Dr David Nabarro told the BBC’s Today programme: “What does urging caution mean? It’s important that everybody knows the best possible advice on how to prevent themselves being infected.

“I accept that vaccination has changed the nature of the equation in the UK, but quite honestly from any point of view it’s too early to be talking about massive relaxation or freedom when the outbreak curve is on such a sharp ascent.

“Yes, relax, but don’t have these mixed messages about what’s going on. This dangerous virus hasn’t gone away, its variants are coming back and are threatening those who have already been vaccinated – we have to take it seriously.”

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Council, said the Government was ‘throwing caution to the wind’.

Chard & Ilminster News: WARNING: Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair
WARNING: Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair

“It’s irresponsible – and frankly perilous - that the Government has decided to press ahead with plans to lift the remaining Covid-19 restrictions on July 19,” Dr Nagpaul added.

“In doing so, the Government is reneging on its own promise to be led by data and impact on the NHS.

“We do not accept that there is no good time to ease restrictions further. We have been clear that any relaxation should be dependent on the overwhelming majority of the population being fully vaccinated, ensuring they receive maximum protection and which would result in new cases being controlled.

“Scrapping the remaining restrictions next week – when a significant proportion of the population will not have been fully vaccinated – will give this deadly virus an opportunity to retighten its grip; pushing infection rates up, increasing hospitalisations and people ill with long-covid, risking new vaccine-resistant variants developing, and putting more lives at unnecessary risk.

“While the Government has said it will continue to encourage the wearing of face coverings after the 19th, within the same breath ministers confirm that masks will not be mandatory.

“This is contradictory and shows the Government absolving itself of responsibility while heaping pressure on the public, confused by mixed messaging of the highest order.”

He added: “The Prime Minister repeatedly emphasised this evening the importance of a slow and cautious approach, but in reality the Government is throwing caution to the wind by scrapping all regulations in one fell swoop – with potentially devastating consequences.

“Furthermore, the Government says it will launch a review into Britain’s preparedness for autumn and winter when the best preparation it can undertake, is to stem the rise in cases now.

“Therefore, ministers must urgently reassess its decision to lift the remaining restrictions on July 19. Until then, we urge the public to continue taking every precaution by wearing face coverings, maintaining social distancing, and meeting outside where possible.”

Bridgwater and West Somerset MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger, said he had heard from constituents worried over the scrapping of the mandatory mask mandate.

“All this really does is to shift the responsibility onto the individual and to make it an individual, rather than a collective decision about how best to protect oneself,” he said.

“It will cease to become compulsory to wear masks in certain places and I know this is of concern to many of my older constituents. But if people feel the need to carry on wearing masks in shops, at social gatherings or on public transport then they should continue to do so.

Chard & Ilminster News: NO MANDATE: People can choose not to wear facemasks
NO MANDATE: People can choose not to wear facemasks

“No one is going to criticise them for doing so: they are not going to be stigmatised for wanting to protect themselves.

“At the end of the day we have to realise that Covid remains as much of a threat as ever. What has changed is our collective resilience, with such a large proportion of the population now vaccinated thanks to the wonderful efforts of NHS workers and the army of supporting volunteers.

“But after the controls, the lockdowns – and indeed the scares – of the last 16 months it is understandable that elderly people in particular may remain particularly nervous, especially so if they happen to agree with the views of those scientists who say it’s too soon to drop our guard.

“In such cases it is entirely understandable if they wish to continue to limit social contact, practice social distancing, and wear masks even when there is no obligation to.

“And in the new order where we now find ourselves no-one is going to blame them for doing so.”

He added: “My advice is exactly the same in each case: people should do what makes them feel safest.”

Perhaps that is the best advice of all - do what you need to do in order to feel safe.

For as the Prime Minister himself said, this is not over.