Legal measures requiring masks and Covid passes in England have been dropped, but shoppers and commuters in some settings will still be asked to wear face coverings.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the success of the vaccine programme, coupled with a better understanding of treatment for the virus, is “allowing us to cautiously return to plan A, restoring more freedoms to this country”.
From Thursday, face coverings are not required by law in any setting, while a legal requirement for NHS Covid passes for entry to venues such as nightclubs has been scrapped.
As the focus moves away from legal measures, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, when asked about masks, said it will now be “a matter of personal judgment”.
Public health guidance urging people to wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces if coming into contact strangers will remain in place, the Government said.
It said organisations will be able to choose if they will require Covid passes from those visiting their venues.
The latest rolling back of restrictions follows the dropping of the work from home guidance last week, and advice for face coverings in classrooms for both staff and pupils being scrapped.
From Thursday, the Department for Education has also removed national guidance on the use of face coverings in communal areas of educational settings.
Mr Javid said: “Our vaccines, testing and antivirals ensure we have some of the strongest defences in Europe and are allowing us to cautiously return to plan A, restoring more freedoms to this country.
“As we learn to live with Covid, we need to be clear eyed that this virus is not going away so if you haven’t already – please come forward for your first, second or booster jab.”
While the scrapping of measures have been welcomed by some, others have urged people to “be considerate to those around them” when it comes to choosing to wear a face covering, and to “be respectful” of policies in certain settings.
Both Sainsbury’s and John Lewis said their customers will be asked to wear masks, though the latter acknowledged it will ultimately come down to “personal choice”.
The British Retail Consortium said the changes “will enable shopping to return to a more normal experience for customers, employees and businesses”.
But their chief executive Helen Dickinson added: “Retailers ask customers to be considerate to those around them when choosing whether to wear a face covering and to respect the decision of other customers.”
It is “essential” that retailers clearly communicate their masks policy to customers, said Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman.
He added: “While no longer a legal requirement, many stores will still have a policy of asking customers to wear face coverings whilst shopping, and that should be respected.
“Covid-related abuse, especially around the wearing of face coverings, has been a significant problem for retailers and colleagues throughout the pandemic, so we ask all customers to be respectful of the policies in place in their local shops.”
Shop workers’ union Usdaw welcomed the retention of Covid-safety measures in some stores, as its general secretary Paddy Lillis branded as “deeply disappointing” the end to mandatory face coverings in shops “despite the concerns of shop workers”.
Meanwhile, commuters on London’s public transport network will still be required to wear face coverings, with the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan calling on people to “do the right thing”.
A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group echoed this sentiment and said train firms will ask passengers to wear masks “out of courtesy to others”.
He said: “We expect most passengers will do the right thing and follow this advice.”
The withdrawal of the requirement for Covid passes has been welcomed by those within the hospitality industry.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, described the requirement as having been a “debilitating and divisive mitigation” and said businesses across the night-time economy will celebrate the change.
Mr Kill said the impact of the measure has left “many businesses now concerned that they will struggle to survive beyond February” and called for more Government support.
Shaun Hinds, chief executive at Manchester Central, which describes itself as one of the UK’s leading events venues, described the end of plan B as “a very positive move”.
He said “a number of significant enquiries for events in 2022” and new bookings for 2023 indicate a “real appetite and eagerness in the live events sector as it continues in its recovery”.
The Department of Health said the changes come after a review of data last week including infections, vaccine efficacy, Covid pressures on the NHS, workforce absences, public behaviours, and views from the scientific community.