Friends and family must think and make their own choices when it comes to hugging each other, Boris Johnson said as he urged people not to “suddenly throw caution to the winds”.
From next Monday, hugs between people from different households in England will be allowed for the first time in months as restrictions are eased in the next stage of the road out of lockdown.
The Government will allow people to use their “personal judgment” on close contact between friends and family from this date, when groups of up to six or two households can be reunited indoors.
But the Prime Minister said people must consider the vulnerability of their loved ones before having close contact, taking into account about whether they have had a vaccine.
He told the Downing Street press conference: “From next Monday we are updating the guidance on close contact between friends and family,
setting out the risks for everyone to make their own choices.
“This does not mean we can suddenly throw caution to the winds. In fact, more than a year into this pandemic, we all know that close contact, such as hugging, is a direct way of transmitting this disease.
“So I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones – whether they have had a vaccine, one or two doses, and whether there has been time for that vaccine to take effect.”
He reiterated advice about it being safer to meet outdoors, and added that if people are gathering indoors from next week it is wise to open windows to ensure good ventilation.
People should also get tested for coronavirus regularly, even if they do not have symptoms in order to try and stop Covid-19 spreading, he added.
Social distancing outside of gatherings of friends and family should continue, the PM said, in environments such as pubs, restaurants, workplaces and shops.
On close contact with loved ones, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “This is a matter for personal judgment.
“What the public need to understand is that we are moving away from delivering a specific instruction on this point to advising the public that, because of the success of the vaccine rollout and the public abiding by the rules, we are at the point where everyone can use their own personal judgment.
“So there is no set rule on that, it is down to personal judgment.”
Other ways of minimising the risk include wearing face coverings, regular hand washing and keeping surfaces clean.
Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), urged people to “act responsibly” ahead of restrictions being lifted.
He told BBC Breakfast: “I think it’s actually very important for our mental health and wellbeing that we can hug our loved ones, but to me the key message is, if and when this comes in, we need to remember that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.
“We are still a few steps away from normality, so it’s really great that we can hug our loved ones, but what we need to remember is we need to be a little bit careful.”
Meanwhile, professor in medical microbiology Sally Jane Cutler told Times Radio: “I think we have to be very conserved about who we choose to hug.
“Personally I’m going to restrict my hugging to family members and not beyond.”