Boris Johnson has been forced into a U-turn on face coverings, after doctors, trade unions and health charities blasted his plans to relax rules.
The prime minister said last week that legal requirements to wear masks would be ditched in England on July 19 and that the public would instead be advised to “use their personal judgement” when it came to coverings.
However, after a wave of criticism, Mr Johnson has now adopted Nicola Sturgeon’s approach – that masks should continue to be worn beyond the lifting of restrictions.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “The pandemic is not over, cases are rising and modelling suggests hospitalisations, serious illness and deaths will continue, albeit at a much lower level than before vaccinations.
“So the need for caution and restraint is more important than ever.”
The spokesman said that while legal restrictions were being lifted, “clear and cautious” guidance would remain in place.
“We expect people to wear face coverings in crowded areas such as public transport.
“Businesses and large events will also be supported and encouraged to use certification in high risk settings to help limit the spread of infections in their venues.”
Asked why Mr Johnson had changed his position, the spokesman said: “The prime minister has previously said how he would continue to wear a face covering in line with the guidance.
Boris Johnson, Weds lunchtime: "It is common sense for people in confined spaces to wear a face mask, out of respect and courtesy to others”.
— Dan Bloom (@danbloom1) July 8, 2021
“The prime minister deliberately struck a very cautious tone last week, and will continue to do so because what is clear from the evidence is that while we believe that on the balance this is the right time to to move ahead, it’s important to do that on a gradual basis.”
The move brings England more in line with Scotland, where face coverings will continue in certain settings.
A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: “There will still be some ongoing need for face coverings, for example on public transport and in retail, and we will be working with sectors to establish baseline mitigations and produce further guidance by end of July.”
In the Commons, the SNP said the shifting position on masks had “undermined” public health.
The party’s communities spokeswoman Patricia Gibson, in response to a statement from Health Secretary Sajid Javid, said: “I want to press him on masks.
“He has said that he’s been perfectly clear, but the opposite is the case, he tells us that masks will no longer be compulsory, but wearing them will be expected.
“The Chancellor boasts that he will stop wearing a mask on the 19th of July, but the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser say they will continue to wear masks.
“Why has this important public health tool been so undermined by the dithering and mixed messages of his government?”
Mr Javid did not respond directly to the criticism, opting instead to repeat that the public was being advised to wear coverings in some settings.