Ministers expect and recommend the public to continue to wear face masks in crowded areas and on public transport, despite the legal requirement to do so being lifted in England.
It marks a more cautious message to the public from Health Secretary Sajid Javid ahead of “freedom day” on July 19 in response to soaring coronavirus cases.
Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the legal requirement for face coverings would be scrapped and said it would “depend on the circumstances” whether or not he would continue to wear one.
He added: “I think that what we’re trying to do is move from universal Government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility.
“Clearly there’s a big difference between travelling on a crowded Tube train and sitting, late at night, in a virtually empty carriage on the main railway line.”
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick and Chancellor Rishi Sunak both previously confirmed that they planned to stop wearing masks when it is no longer legally required.
Environment Secretary George Eustice also said he was looking forward to ditching his mask as soon as there was not a “legal compulsion” to wear one.
Appearing on Sky News on June 24, he said: “I have to be honest, once I’m told that it’s safe not to, I want to get back to normal. I think a lot of people will want to shed those masks.”
However, even with all legal restrictions set to end next week, Downing Street said on Monday the Government will “expect and recommend” the continued use of face masks in crowded areas and on public transport.
Signalling a more cautious approach to the public, Mr Javid said people should continue to wear face coverings in some indoor settings after the next stage of the Government’s road map.
He told the Commons: “As we make these changes, it is so important that people act with caution and with personal responsibility.
“For example, everyone should return to work gradually if they are currently working from home; they should try to meet people outside where possible; and it is expected and recommended that people should wear face coverings, unless they are exempt, in crowded indoor settings.”
As he made the announcement, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth could be heard remarking from the Labour benches that it was a “U-turn”.
It comes after the Government faced criticism from charities, health bodies and unions for removing the mandatory wearing of face masks at the next stage of the road map.
Christina McAnea, general secretary of the Unison union, said: “Now isn’t the time to ditch mandatory mask wearing. The Prime Minister should be providing direction to the public, not side-stepping the responsibility that comes with Government.”
Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, national officer for health at the Unite union, said: “What the Prime Minister is doing by his ‘mixed’ messaging is causing confusion to NHS staff and the public. What is needed is clarity in the same way that you know you can’t legally smoke in public places.”