Boris Johnson has appealed to people to exercise their new freedoms with caution as most mandatory lockdown restrictions in England are finally lifted.
Social-distancing rules which, in one form or another, have governed people’s lives for over a year finally ended on Monday morning at one minute past midnight.
Face masks are no longer mandatory in shops and on public transport, limits on gathering have gone and the work from home guidance has ended.
Nightclubs, theatres and restaurants can fully reopen, while pubs are no longer restricted to table service only.
But with Covid-19 cases continuing to soar and renewed warnings about the pressure on the NHS, there was no mood of celebration in Government.
Mr Johnson is spending so-called “freedom day” self-isolating at his official country residence at Chequers after being “pinged” by NHS Test and Trace following a contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who subsequently tested positive for the virus.
Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who also met Mr Javid on Friday, initially tried to get round the requirement to quarantine by saying they would join a daily workplace testing programme being trialled by the Cabinet Office.
However they were forced into a hasty U-turn amid widespread public anger at their “special treatment” while tens of thousands of people were being forced to miss work or school and stay home.
Mr Johnson will self-isolate until July 26, which will include the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the Commons goes into recess, and the two-year anniversary of him entering No 10, which is on Saturday.
With new cases of the virus already having passed the 50,000-a-day mark, some scientists have expressed concern at the ending of restrictions while the Delta variant is spreading so rapidly.
Professor Neil Ferguson – whose modelling led to the first lockdown in March 2020 – said they could reach 200,000 before the current wave of the pandemic finally peaked.
He said that could result in 2,000 hospital admissions a day leading to “major disruption” and further backlogs in NHS services.
Meanwhile businesses have warned of shortages on the shelves as the number of people off work after being pinged by the NHS Covid app continues to rise.
In a effort to alleviate pressure on the NHS, frontline staff in England who are fully jabbed are being told they may be exempted from quarantine if their absence may lead to “a significant risk of harm”.
In a video message posted on his Twitter feed, Mr Johnson defended the decision to go ahead with the unlocking – which was originally scheduled for June 21 under the Government’s road map – while urging people to remain cautious.
“There is no doubt at all that the massive vaccination programme has very severely weakened the link between infection and hospitalisation, and between infection and serious illness and death. That is the vital thing,” he said.
“So please, please, please be cautious. Go forward into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer however accused the Government of being “reckless”, saying it was a “mistake” to lift all the remaining restrictions in one go.
“We can already see that the infection rates are going through the roof, we know what’s going to happen with hundreds of thousands of people being asked to self isolate,” he said.
“The Prime Minister is essentially putting the whole nation into a car, pressing the accelerator and taking the seatbelt off.”
While rules have been lifted, Government guidelines continue to urge caution with people being urged to meet outside where possible, pubs to continue with table service and employers to encourage a gradual return to the workplace.
Many shops and public transport operators are still asking people to wear face masks while they are a “condition of carriage” on Transport for London.
Meanwhile in Scotland, where restrictions have been eased but not lifted, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also emphasised the need for caution.
The whole of the country has dropped to the lowest level of its five-tier system with social-distancing reduced to just one metre, although face coverings remain mandatory in shops and on public transport.
Ms Sturgeon said talk in England of “freedom day” was “not sensible” and that it was important to ease up on restrictions gradually.
It follows a series of rule changes in Wales which came in on Saturday, while in Northern Ireland regulations are expected to ease from July 26.