Ministers are planning to end the mandatory wearing of masks and social distancing in England from July 19 alongside the lifting of lockdown restrictions.
Key scientific advisers to the Government such as chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance are reportedly supporting the decision.
However, they have warned that the NHS could come under strain in winter with the risk of new wave COVID-19 infections.
National guidance may still require mask-wearing in high risk areas such as public transport from July 19, but a Whitehall source advised: “Any advice on masks is likely to be guidance rather than regulations.”
National health bosses have expressed concerns that the lifting of lockdown restrictions could lead to a new spike of cases that will cause surgeries and other care to be cancelled.
COVID cases are already beginning to spike in the UK, with 27,556 new infections recorded yesterday, July 1. However, hospitalisations and deaths are not spiking in the way they did during previous waves.
Multiple NHS trust chief executives spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, warning that hospitals will struggle to cope with a significant new wave of COVID cases because they are already unusually busy.
One said “I feel anxious at the moment about the roadmap”, noting that more than 100 nurses in their trust are currently isolating due to being infected or living with someone who is.
Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders are increasingly confident that vaccines are breaking the chain between infections, serious illness and deaths. But they are understandably nervous about what a wholesale lifting of restrictions on 19 July could mean for the NHS.
“We are dealing with a fast-moving, ever-changing picture and the reality on the frontline is that even a small increase in Covid-19 admissions or emergency care pressures could affect our ability to deliver non-Covid services in a context where many staff are exhausted.”
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A spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the vaccine programme is as effective as expected at preventing a surge in hospital admissions, saying: “I think it’s important to make the point about where we are in this battle against this epidemic. It is due to our ongoing success of the vaccine programme and wider mitigations that we are in a position that, despite having a significant increase in cases, that is not feeding through into big rises in hospitalisations and death.”
A Whitehall source also said the option of COVID certification is being considered to keep mass events running through winter.
Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Editor, follow him on Twitter