The use of domestic vaccine passports and face masks will be encouraged as ministers set out a cautious approach to England’s “freedom day” on July 19 in response to soaring coronavirus cases.
Although most legal restrictions will largely be lifted, hopes of a complete return to normality have been dashed by the spread of the Delta variant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs that it was the “right time to get our nation closer to normal life”.
“To those who say ‘why take this step now’ I say ‘if not now, when?’
“There will never be a perfect time to take this step because we simply cannot eradicate this virus.”
Mr Javid said the Government’s approach was “about balancing the harms that are caused by Covid with the undeniable harms that restrictions bring”.
Ministers concluded that the four tests set for unlocking, the success of the vaccine rollout, evidence that vaccines are causing a reduction in hospital admissions and deaths, that infection rates do not risk a surge in admissions, and that no new variants of concern throw progress off track, are being met, allowing Step 4 of the road map to proceed as planned.
This is despite official acknowledgement that there could be 100,000 new cases a day in the summer.
“Cases are rising, propelled by the new, more transmissible, Delta variant,” Mr Javid said.
“The average number of daily cases is over 26,000 and this has doubled over the past 11 days.
“And sadly the case numbers will get a lot worse before they get better – we could reach 100,000 cases a day later in the summer.”
Hospital admissions will also rise further but they are “far lower than they were at this point during the previous wave” and the vaccines had “severely weakened” the link between people catching coronavirus and ending up developing serious illness and possibly dying.
The Government has previously said that from Step 4 all coronavirus restrictions on gatherings will be removed, masks will no longer be legally required, social distancing measures will be scrapped and the order to work from home will be lifted.
But while the legal restrictions are going, guidance will make clear that people and firms are expected to continue to take action to limit the spread of the virus.
This includes the widespread use of Covid status certification, the so-called vaccine passports allowing people to show whether they are double-jabbed, have a negative test result or have natural immunity after recovering from Covid-19.
Nightclubs, which have been closed since the first lockdown in March last year, will be allowed to open their doors but will be encouraged to use certification to minimise the risks.
Other “large events” will also be encouraged to use vaccine passports, with customers able to prove their status using the NHS app.
Downing Street said the Government will “expect and recommend” the continued use of face masks in crowded areas and on public transport.
The return of employees to the workplace, seen as key for helping town and city centre businesses which rely on commuters, is not expected to happen overnight, with firms encouraged to take a gradual approach.
A series of guidance documents will set out what is expected of firms as the Government shifts responsibility from the state to company bosses and citizens.
This includes new guidance for the clinically extremely vulnerable, those most at risk from coronavirus.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will lead a Downing Street press conference at 5pm to give further details of the plans, joined by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty.
Mr Javid said a review would be carried out in September “to assess our preparedness for autumn and winter”.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said Mr Javid had adopted a “high-risk, indeed fatalistic approach” and “instead of caution he’s pushing his foot down on the accelerator while throwing the seat belts off”.
He pointed out that other countries have been forced to reverse the easing of restrictions, with Israel reintroducing masks and the Netherlands shutting nightclubs a fortnight after they reopened.
Mr Javid told him: “There is no risk-free way forward and while opening up is not without risk, ongoing restrictions are not without cost.”