The UK is experiencing a huge surge in coronavirus cases, with some 30,000 cases per day.
Despite this, PM Boris Johnson announced on Monday he would press ahead with lifting all remaining lockdown restrictions in England on July 19.
He said it was the “right moment to proceed” with schools closing for the summer holidays.
He urged people to “proceed with caution”. Legal restrictions will be lifted, and replaced by a recommendation that people wear masks in crowded places and on public transport.
Nightclubs and other venues with crowds should use vaccine passports for entry “as a matter of social responsibility” he added.
But he only said he was “urging nightclubs and other venues” to use the NHS Covid Pass.
“This pandemic is not over. This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday July 19 to life as it was before COVID,” Johnson said.
Nightclubs can reopen for the first time since March last year, and there will no longer be limits on people attending concerts, theaters, weddings or sports events.
Earlier, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it was the right time to allow Britons a chance to return to normal life. The government’s decision balances the harms brought by COVID-19 and damage done by continued restrictions, he said.
Javid told Parliament that Britain’s successful vaccine rollout means that nine out of 10 adults in the UK now have antibodies against the virus.
The government is on track to meet its target of offering all adults a first vaccine dose by July 19, the day when all remaining lockdown restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing, are to be lifted.
As of Monday, 87 percent of the UK’s adult population have had their first dose, and 66 percent have had both doses.
However at the same time infections have soared, mostly due to the delta variant.
Javid said while new infections could reach 100,000 a day later in the summer, two doses of the vaccine offer effective protection against serious illness from the virus and officials believe the surge in cases will not put “unsustainable pressure” on hospitals.
Waiting any longer to lift restrictions will risk having the virus spread peak in the autumn and winter, when children return to school and hospitals are most likely to be overwhelmed by seasonal infections, Javid and Johnson said.
“There will never be a perfect time to take this step, because we simply cannot eradicate this virus — whether we like it or not, coronavirus is not going away,” Javid said.
Many of the infections have occurred among younger people who have yet to receive a first dose of vaccine. The government has no plans yet to offer vaccines to children under 18.
Experts and opposition politicians have voiced their concerns about the reopening in the face of huge numbers of COVID cases.
Experts ‘dumbfounded’ by decision
Stephen Griffin, associate professor at Leeds University’s school of medicine, called the move an irresponsible gamble.
“I am dumbfounded by the notion that public health can be left to individual choice when, in the case of infectious disease it is, in fact, the epitome of collective responsibility,” Griffin said. “Government messaging on restrictions currently amounts to an outright oxymoron by urging caution whilst simultaneously allowing all guidance to be lifted.”
Peter Openshaw, a member of a group that advises the government on new and emerging respiratory viruses, said it was vital to keep some protective measures in place, such as wearing masks.
“I really don’t see why people are reluctant to wear face coverings, it is quite clear that they do greatly reduce transmission,” he told BBC radio. “Vaccines are fantastic but you have to give them time to work.”
The opposition Labour Party’s health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said Javid’s plan was akin to “pushing his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belts off.”
Other parts of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are following their own, broadly similar, road maps out of lockdown.