The government will issue guidance stating that people will still be “expected to wear masks in indoor, enclosed places” after the final step of releasing lockdown restrictions, Nadhim Zahawi has said.
The vaccines minister told Sky News he is “confident” that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to announce on Monday that COVID restrictions will be lifted on 19 July as planned despite the surge in cases.
But he revealed the PM will inform the public that they should continue to wear face coverings in crowded places, despite the legal requirement to do so ending from step four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown.
Earlier this week, when setting out the details of his planned unlocking for the fourth and final step of his roadmap on 19 July, the PM said from this point there will be no more legal requirement on wearing face masks in shops or on public transport.
However, Mr Zahawi’s comments on Sunday suggested more caution over lifting the policy of wearing face masks altogether.
And on Wednesday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told MPs he is “very relaxed” about airlines, train firms and bus operators imposing their own COVID-related rules, including on wearing face masks, beyond 19 July.
Shadow education secretary Kate Green told Sky News the changing positions from government ministers is a “recipe for confusion” and said it could lead to “more confrontations”.
She added that Labour believes “mandatory mask-wearing should continue in public places” and called for face coverings to be compulsory on trams in Manchester and the tube network in London.
A final decision on England’s path out of restrictions is expected to be taken on Monday and the PM is suffering a backlash over his plans to ditch rules on wearing face masks.
Doctors, regional mayors, trade unions and health charities are among those who have expressed fears over the relaxed measures.
And Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also warned that lifting all restrictions in one go would be “reckless”.
Wales has already deviated from the UK Government’s position on mask wearing, announcing that face masks will remain mandatory there in some public places until COVID-19 is no longer a public health threat.
Masks must still be worn in taxis, on trains and buses, as well as health and social care settings when coronavirus restrictions are eased, the Welsh government said.
Meanwhile, on vaccines, Mr Zahawi dismissed a story in The Sunday Times which suggested the gap between receiving the two doses of the COVID jab could be cut to four weeks.
Mr Zahawi said the eight-week interval between vaccine doses provides “much better” protection from coronavirus as he dismissed reports that the gap is due to be reduced from eight weeks to four.
“I think it is important that we remain cautious and careful and the guidelines that we will set out tomorrow will demonstrate that – including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor, enclosed spaces,” Mr Zahawi said.
“The real-world data, the clinical data suggests that actually the eight-week interval offers that additional fortification in terms of protection with the two doses, at much better than having the interval shortened any further,” he told Sky News.
Labour’s Ms Green said her party would support reducing the time interval between two jabs if the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended it.
“The priority, of course now, is also to make sure that people who have not been vaccinated at all get the vaccine, and it is concerning that the rate of vaccinations is slowing and that some groups are still not being able to come forward and be vaccinated,” she told Sky News.
All over 18s are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in England.
Earlier this week, the government announced that from 16 August, double jabbed individuals and all children will no longer need to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19.
And Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also confirmed that fully vaccinated adults and all children will no longer have to quarantine on their return from amber list countries from 19 July.