UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the forthcoming end of Covid-19 restrictions last night as he suggested that Britain may not return to normality if it did not seize the opportunity now.
The Prime Minister announced that laws enforcing masks and social distancing would be scrapped on July 19, meaning pubs and theatres can operate without restrictions.
He also said a work from home mandate would end and that school bubbles would be axed later this month.
Later this week the Government is also expected to announce the end of mandatory isolation for fully vaccinated arrivals from "amber-list countries".
Johnson announced his intention for a full reopening on July 19 despite acknowledging that there could be 50,000 new cases detected daily by then, but said that we must "learn to live with this virus".
The decision to announce a return to individual responsibility over state intervention signals a change in government approach to the pandemic and comes 10 days after the departure of Matt Hancock, the former health secretary.
It also comes despite opposition from government scientists who urged ministers to keep "baseline" restrictions such as masks and working from home, and said that new freedoms could create "superspreader" events.
Johnson told a televised Downing Street press conference: "If we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer, and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves, 'When will we be able to return to normal?'" the Prime Minister said.
He added: "To those who say we should delay again - the alternative to that is to open up in winter when the virus will have an advantage, or not at all this year."
Johnson's announcement included the scrapping of the "rule of six" which currently curbs the number of people allowed to meet indoors and puts a 30-person limit on outdoor gatherings.
The cap on named visitors to care homes will be removed, along with the requirement for people to remain at "one metre plus" from others outside their household or bubble.
Rules forcing double vaccinated people to isolate after coming into contact with a confirmed coronavirus case are also set to end.
The decision to scrap the legal enforcement of masks prompted Ryanair and easyJet to announce that they would still require passengers to wear them on their flights.
Johnson said government guidance would be put in place suggesting that people wear masks in crowded places, such as public transport, and that businesses including shops and pubs would still be allowed to insist on masks should they choose.
He warned that the nation was "very far from the end of dealing with this virus" and this was not the moment to "get demob happy".
He said that the Government had to "balance the risk" of illness from the virus with the harmful impact of continuing restrictions, including the toll on lives, livelihoods, health and mental health.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, stressed that the country was "in the face of an increasing epidemic at the moment and therefore we need to behave accordingly in terms of trying to limit transmission".
The end of restrictions will be formally confirmed next Monday, July 12, but Johnson signalled that confidence levels were high.
The latest data showed that 27,334 new cases were recorded yesterday morning, while a further nine people had died within 28 days of a positive test.
So far more than 45.4 million people have received a first vaccine dose, up 77,222 on the previous day, and 33.7 million have been given both doses, a rise of 111,410.
The gap between vaccine doses for under-40s will be reduced from 12 weeks to eight, meaning that all adults will have the opportunity to be double-jabbed by mid-September.
Johnson also confirmed that proposals for domestic Covid passports had been shelved for the time being, but would remain under review. Firms will be able to voluntarily use the system.
Pubs are among businesses set to get the biggest benefit from the announcement, which heralds the return of drinkers ordering at the bar, as the requirement for table service ends, and customers being allowed to sit on tables of more than six.
The intervention was also welcome news for theatres, sports stadiums and event venues, which can return to full capacity, as well as festivals.
The forced closure of nightclubs will also end. The removal of restrictions will be a boost to weddings too, as hymn singing and dancing will be permitted.
Legal requirements to wear face coverings will be lifted, although guidance will suggest people might choose to do so in "enclosed and crowded places". Johnson confirmed he would wear one in certain settings.
Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, went further and said he would put on a face covering if in a crowded space, if asked to by a competent authority, or if the absence of a mask made anyone else uncomfortable as a "point of common courtesy".
Last night Tory MPs cheered as Sajid Javid told the Commons the measures that would soon be lifted. The Health Secretary told the House it would be "a restoration of so many of the freedoms that make this country great".
But fears persist among lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs in the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) that there could yet be winter lockdown and the introduction of domestic Covid passports.
Newly released papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies say that stronger restrictions may be required in winter despite Johnson's pledge that the changes on July 19 would be "irreversible".
One undated paper warns "it is highly likely that transmission will increase in autumn and winter".
"The healthcare burden of other infections through the year is also an important consideration," it continues. "This may mean stronger measures may be desirable for autumn and winter."
Asked whether the unlocking was irreversible, Johnson warned: "Obviously if we do find another variant that doesn't respond to the vaccines, if, heaven forbid, some really awful new bug should appear then clearly, we will have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public."
Mark Harper, chairman of the CRG, warned: "The Prime Minister has confirmed that there will be contingency measures in place for winter, and even if they're not legal restrictions, they will have that effect on business."
He demanded ministers urgently publish the details of these measures so that MPs can scrutinise them.