Boris Johnson has said it is “highly probable” the worst of the pandemic is over as the UK recorded its highest number of daily Covid infections for six months.
The Prime Minister urged people not to “throw caution to the winds” as England’s legal restrictions end on Monday and acknowledged there would be more hospital admissions and deaths in the “difficult days and weeks ahead”.
Latest figures showed 48,553 more cases, the highest since January 15, while the 63 deaths were the biggest daily reported increase since March 26.
Mr Johnson has already acknowledged daily cases could hit 50,000 by “freedom day” on Monday and Health Secretary Sajid Javid said they could top 100,000 over the summer.
But the prime minister insisted the success of the vaccination programme meant they could go ahead with the final reopening of the economy.
“If we are careful and if we continue to respect this disease and its continuing menace then it is highly probable, almost all the scientists are agreed on this, the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” he said during a speech in Coventry.
“There are difficult days and weeks ahead as we deal with the current wave of the Delta variant and there will be sadly more hospitalisation and more deaths but with every day that goes by we build higher the wall of vaccine-acquired immunity.”
Figures to Wednesday show 46,097,464 people have received a first dose of vaccine, a rise of 60,374 on the previous day, while 35,341,428 of them are now double-jabbed, an increase of 185,661.
Ministers were forced to deny that plans for England’s reopening were a “total shambles”, with legislation being replaced by official guidance and a voluntary approach.
The latest Government guidance says shoppers will still be expected to wear face masks and table service should continue in pubs and bars, even though it will no longer be a statutory requirement.
The move has been widely criticised by both trade unions and employers, with ministers accused of sending out “mixed messages” while giving businesses little time to prepare the new regime.
Leading supermarkets Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Lidl, Morrisons and Waitrose have all said they will encourage customers to wear masks.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council also said officers would continue to wear masks.
The Labour metro mayors for West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, North of Tyne, West of England and South Yorkshire said they will require mask use on public transport networks where their limited powers allow it.
However, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick defended the Government’s strategy, insisting it was right to allow individuals and businesses to make their own judgments about what precautions to take.
Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if the policy has become a “total shambles”, he replied: “No, I don’t accept that.
“As a result of the vaccine rollout we are able to move into a new phase and that’s one where we all exercise our own personal judgment.”
Mr Johnson said businesses were “perfectly capable” of understanding new guidance on face coverings and guidelines.
“We are moving away from legal compulsion but we are saying that of course the pandemic is not over and sadly people have to remain cautious.”
The TUC has said the Government’s guidance is a “recipe for chaos and rising infections”, while shopworkers union Usdaw said it is a “real mess” offering no assurances for staff or customers.
Dr Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, said firms are “understandably confused” by the Government’s “mixed messages and patchwork requirements”.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said it is “difficult” for people in England to know exactly what is required of them and he urged the Government at Westminster to stick to a four-nation approach.
“It is the UK Government that is the outlier and if they were prepared to bring themselves into line with the decisions that have been made in Scotland and in Wales, for example, that would be clearer and simpler for everybody,” he told Good Morning Britain.
Meanwhile, Mr Jenrick said the Government is “concerned” about the number of people off work as a result of being “pinged” by the NHS Covid app, with some companies reportedly missing 20% of their staff.
Some 530,126 alerts – 520,194 in England and 9,932 in Wales – were sent in the seven days to July 7, the highest seven-day total since data was first published in January.
Mr Jenrick told LBC radio: “It is important that we have the app, that we take it seriously, that when we do get those messages we act accordingly. But we are going to give further thought to how we can ensure it is a proportionate response.”