A minister has told Sky News he is “confident” the government is doing the right thing by lifting almost all coronavirus restrictions in England, as a top World Health Organization (WHO) envoy warned: “This virus hasn’t gone away.”

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Kay Burley now is “as good a time as any” to lift most COVID-19 rules, although he urged people to remain “careful” and “vigilant”.

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WHO: ‘No sense of freedom’

Critics of the government’s approach have accused ministers of being reckless in going ahead with today’s easing, in the face of daily case numbers hitting their highest level in six months and the continuing spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

But with two-thirds of adults fully vaccinated, proponents of proceeding with step four of the government’s roadmap argue the success of the UK’s vaccine rollout means hospitalisations and deaths will be lower than in previous waves.

Mr Zahawi said it was an “important step forward”, adding: “There is no perfect time to take this step, this is as good a time as any as [Professor] Chris Whitty has said, with the summer holidays and schools being out, which will hopefully bear down on the R number, the transition rate.

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“So, I’m confident that we are doing the right thing.

“I think the vaccination programme has allowed us to take this step, to take it cautiously with this wall of protection among adults in the United Kingdom.”

But Dr David Nabarro, a special envoy on COVID-19 for the WHO, told Sky News there was “no sense of freedom in my heart” on a day that had in some quarters been dubbed “Freedom Day”.

“Unfortunately there’s a sense that this virus is very much here and is giving us lots of surprises and lots of anxieties,” he continued.

“Therefore as a society we go into the next period with our eyes wide open, knowing pretty well what to expect. That is more disease, more long COVID and more challenges as to how we behave.

“My recommendation is simply: wear your mask. Don’t get too close to people. Watch out in confined spaces.

“And remember, this virus hasn’t gone away.”

Professor Andrew Hayward told Sky News the country was “heading into the biggest wave of COVID infection that we’ve ever seen” and urged people to “exercise a great deal of caution”.

Professor Hayward, a member of NERVTAG, a subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that advises the government, said: “Even though the vaccine will substantially reduce the number of deaths and hospitalisations, it’s still likely that we will see somewhere in the low tens of thousands of deaths, even if we’re cautious.

“That could move into the middle, high tens of thousands of deaths if we just went back to normal activity.

“Remaining cautious is really the key thing in this unlocking of legal restrictions.”

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London clubbers celebrate nightlife return

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth described the easing as “reckless” and expressed his fear that “we could end up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory here”.

The shadow health secretary said “we don’t support the way the government is throwing away protections and throwing caution to the wind”, adding that he suspects ministers may have to reintroduce some measures in the future.

Step four sees the end of social distancing rules, while face masks are no longer a legal requirement in shops and on public transport.

Limits on how many people you can meet up with indoors and outdoors have also been removed, while the work from home guidance has ended.

Nightclubs, theatres and restaurants can fully reopen, while pubs are no longer restricted to table service only.

But while rules have been lifted, government guidelines continue to urge caution with people being encouraged to meet outside where possible, pubs to continue with table service and employers to encourage a gradual return to the workplace.

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‘Freedom Day’ is not freedom for all

One requirement that remains is to isolate if you are identified as being a close contact of someone who has tested positive for the virus.

From 16 August, people who have been fully vaccinated, along with under 18s, will be able to avoid quarantining at home if they are pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app or contacted by Test and Trace.

But there have been calls for this date to be brought forward and for the sensitivity of the app to be altered, with figures showing hundreds of thousands of people are being told to isolate.

However, Mr Zahawi suggested the government would not be altering its current stance.

“I think the right thing to do is to continue to clinically advise people, with that sensitivity, that they have come into contact with people who have tested positive,” he said.

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PM explains U-turn on self-isolation

“The difference now so that we’ve got almost 88% of people with one dose and 68% of people with two doses, so we can take decisions like we’ve just done with NHS and social care staff, we can make decisions that on 16 August anyone who is double vaccinated doesn’t need to then isolate if they are pinged and don’t test positive for COVID.

“Those changes are happening because of the vaccination programme.”

It has been announced that frontline health workers in England will be spared self-isolation rules in an emergency move to tackle the “pingdemic” that has triggered an NHS staffing crisis.

Fully vaccinated NHS and social care staff may not have to isolate if they are pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app.

The announcement comes less than 24 hours after Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were accused of attempting to dodge self-isolation after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive at the weekend.

Having initially said the pair would take part in a pilot scheme that allows people to test daily instead of isolating, the government performed a swift U-turn in the face of a fierce backlash.

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