Face masks will become optional when Freedom Day finally materialises, but wearing the coverings may still be "advisory" in some settings, a Cabinet minister has warned.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said he hoped to be able to ditch his face mask if England's restrictions are lifted on July 19.
He told Sky News: "Well, what we want to do on July 19, and the Prime Minister said that the data looks good to be able to have that end, is to remove all of the legal restrictions. That's all of the legal requirements to do things, to be taken away completely.
"Now, whether there will still be some people who might choose to wear masks or whether it may be advisory in some settings, that's a separate matter. But the objective of that final stage is to remove the legal requirement to do these things."
Asked if he would still wear a mask once restrictions end, Mr Eustice said: "I wouldn't, no. I have to be honest, once I'm told that it's safe not to, I want to get back to normal. I think a lot of people will want to shed those masks. "
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Russia records highest cases since January as delta variant spreads
Russia on Thursday reported 20,182 new Covid-19 cases, the most confirmed in a single day since Jan 24, amid a wave of infections that authorities blame on the delta variant and people's reluctance to get vaccinated.
The government coronavirus taskforce also confirmed 568 coronavirus-related deaths in the last 24 hours. Both Moscow and St Petersburg recorded the most deaths in a single day since the pandemic began.
As cases began rising rapidly this month, officials scrambled to coax and compel people to get inoculated amid tepid demand for the vaccine despite the widespread availability of Covid-19 shots.
Moscow's authorities have ordered bars and restaurants from Monday to only serve people if they can present a QR-code showing they have been vaccinated, had an infection indicating immunity or recently tested negative.
Unvaccinated people are to be refused non-emergency hospital treatment. Last week Moscow gave employers in public services a month to ensure that 60% of their staff had been vaccinated or else face a fine.
Covid around the world, in pictures
Wembley is not a free for all, says professor
Professor Kevin Fenton, regional director for London for Public Health England (PHE), said it was important that the general public did not see what was happening at Wembley as "a sort of free for all".
Asked if there was a double standard, with parents unable to attend school sports days but Wembley going ahead with possibly no quarantine for officials, he said: "We are where we are with the planning, and as I said the key priority for us is to ensure it happens as safely as possible, and everybody has a vested interest in making this a positive event which doesn't become a risk to local communities, or to players or management.
"So there are protocols in place, we are working with management and the teams and government to make sure it takes place as safely as possible."
He said the vaccine strategy in London was to build confidence in jabs and ensure convenience.
"We have an ambition to ensure that every Londoner over 18 is offered their vaccine by the end of July... and we want to ensure that some high risk groups, for example, care homes, residents and staff, staff working in the NHS and those who may be at increased risk, those aged over 40, all get their second doses in time before July 19."
Wembley a 'controlled situation', says scientist
Professor Kevin Fenton, regional director for London for Public Health England (PHE), said allowing 40,000 people into Wembley next week was a controlled situation.
"With all of these large programmes, they're done under very controlled circumstances," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"So a lot of testing beforehand, measures are placed in the stadium to manage the crowd as well as... to do lateral flow device testing before people enter, and there are marshals across the stadia to ensure that people social distance as best as they can and to follow the rules.
"So there are really strict protocols in place... and the data that we get from events such as these will help us to plan further events in the future, so we need to understand how to live with the virus and to do so safely."
Asked if he was ready to say to the Government that larger crowds should not be allowed if there was something he did not like the look of, he replied: "Yes absolutely.
"And there are going to be a range of things that we will look at so if rates continue to increase in the city, if we see a particular new variant clustering, as we know many things can happen over the two-week period, or if we see failings in some of the controls, we will absolutely raise those concerns, so that that can be taken into account for decisions as we move forward. But again this is a partnership that we are in trying to look at how we manage these events safely, and learning those lessons as we go ahead."
Merkel's call for more restrictions on British tourists unjustified, says minister
Cabinet minister George Eustice said Angela Merkel's call for more European countries to impose restrictions on British tourists was unjustified.
The German chancellor told the Bundestag on Wednesday that she would like other countries to follow her lead in placing quarantine requirements on Britons.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told LBC: "Each country is taking their own decisions on this, so it will be for them to judge what approach they want to take.
"I'm not sure that such an approach would be justified given the highly advanced stage we are currently at now in terms of vaccination, with 80% having had one jab and now 60% having had the second jab.
"I don't think such a move would be justified but obviously it's for individual countries to make these judgments."
Officials call for help after NHS workers abused over AstraZeneca vaccine
NHS workers are being abused in Covid vaccination clinics by people who are refusing the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine due to fears of side effects, it has emerged.
Health boards have appealed to the Scottish Government for help to address a rise in "unacceptable" incidents in which members of the public have angrily demanded Pfizer or Moderna jabs instead.
Guidelines state that under 40s should be given alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been linked to blood clots in extremely rare cases.
However, individuals do not get a choice over which vaccine they receive and those aged 40 or above are likely to be given an AstraZeneca dose, due to shortages of the others.
World's longest ever Covid patient - 305 days
A 72-year-old man has described how he became what is thought to be the world's longest ever Covid patient after testing positive for the virus for 305 days.
Dave Smith, from Bristol, a retired driving instructor, said he was ready to die and give up on life.
He had Covid-19 for more than 10 months in what experts have said is the longest-ever recorded persistent infection with the virus.
He told the BBC how he coughed for "five hours straight, non-stop... if you can imagine the drain that puts on your body, the energy".
He added: "I was ready to give up, I said to Lyn my wife 'let me go, I've been hanging on, it's so bad now, I'm just jelly'. If I go in the night, don't be surprised."
Cleric jailed for hiding Covid test result
An influential firebrand cleric was sentenced to another four years in prison on Thursday for concealing information about his coronavirus test result.
The three-judge panel at East Jakarta District Court, which was under heavy police and military guard, ruled that Rizieq Shihab had lied about his Covid-19 test result, which made contact tracing more difficult.
Shihab has been detained since Dec 13. The judges ordered the time he has already served to be deducted from his sentence.
Authorities blocked streets leading to the court as thousands of Shihab's supporters tried to stage a rally to demand his release. Police fired tear gas and water canons to disperse hard-core followers who tried to approach the court. Hundreds who refused to leave were detained.
Shihab's case was part of a series of criminal trials he has been facing since returning from a three-year exile in Saudi Arabia last November.
Today's front page
Here is your Daily Telegraph on Thursday, June 24.
Thai protesters defy Covid ban to push for change
Hundreds of Thai pro-democracy protesters took to the streets on Thursday, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and constitutional changes that would curb the influence of the country's powerful monarchy.
The rally, which defied a ban on public gatherings due to the pandemic, comes as the Prayuth government faces public criticism over its handling of coronavirus outbreaks, a slow economic recovery and a vaccine policy that involves a company owned by King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
"The constitution must come from the people," protest leader, Jatupat "Pai Daodin" Boonpattararaksa, told the crowd in the capital Bangkok.
Youth-led demonstrations last year attracted hundreds of thousands of people across the country, but they stalled after security forces began cracking down on rallies, detaining protest leaders, and new waves of Covid-19 infections broke out.
Plans to enable dad to walk bride down the aisle again
Fathers will be allowed to walk their daughters down the aisle in churches without wearing a face mask under government plans to ease Covid restrictions on weddings.
Guests at wedding receptions could also be allowed to move between tables carrying drinks in measures being developed by Penny Mordaunt, the Cabinet Office minister, and Paul Scully, the business minister.
The pair have been working with the weddings industry in a bid to make wedding days more workable for thousands of couples after the 30 guest limit was lifted for ceremonies in England at the beginning of this week.
Ministers are desperate to try to make small changes and to pick off "low hanging fruit" in the restrictions to ensure that couples' wedding days are not ruined by overzealous requirements to force guests and staff to follow Covid-19 protocols.
Wave of restrictions force reluctant Russians to get jab
Vaccination centres in Moscow were inundated on Wednesday with people spooked by a tsunami of restrictions that will effectively make Covid vaccinations mandatory in the middle of record-high new infections.
A deep-seated distrust of the government, as well as the Kremlin’s mixed messaging about the pandemic, have made Russians wary of taking the jab, despite Russia being one of the first countries to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V.
The distrust of the vaccine has also sparked a brisk trade in fake vaccination certificates.
Just 15 per cent of people have received the two-dose jab in Moscow, even though it has been widely available since the end of December.
Lottery lure has mixed results after initial boost
Ohio, the state that launched the national movement to offer millions of dollars in incentives to boost vaccination rates, planned to conclude its program on Wednesday — still unable to crack the 50 percent vaccination threshold.
Republican Governor Mike DeWine's May 12 announcement of the incentive program had the desired effect, leading to a 43 percent boost in state vaccination numbers over the previous week. But numbers of vaccinations have dropped since then.
"Clearly the impact went down after that second week," Mr DeWine acknowledged on Wednesday.
Multiple other states followed Ohio's lead, including Louisiana, Maryland, and New York state, with the impact on vaccinations hard to pin down.
Pressure on Thai PM grows amid infection wave
A year after the start of student-led protests against Thailand's military-backed government, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing growing anger amid a mounting wave of coronavirus infections and a dismal economy.
This time, some of those calling for Mr Prayuth to step down are his one-time allies.
On Thursday, three separate groups of protesters marched to demand the resignation of Mr Prayuth, who first came to power in 2014 when, as army chief, he led a military coup against an elected government.
Several political parties in parliament - including two in Prayuth's ruling coalition - are preparing to try to change the military-drafted constitution that helped keep him in office through elections in 2019, by allowing a junta-appointed Senate to vote for the prime minister.
Read more: Thailand revokes protest ban that backfired
Singapore slow to lift rules despite high vaccination rates
Singapore is drawing up a road map on how to live more normally with Covid-19 amid expectations that the virus will become endemic like influenza, said ministers leading the country's virus-fighting task force.
The city-state has vaccinated about half its 5.7 million population with at least one dose of vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
While Singapore's vaccination pace is relatively high, the country has been slower at resuming social activities and travel, compared with places with similar inoculation rates.
Singapore has strict rules governing social gatherings, mask-wearing, contact-tracing and travel.
Exams likely to be affected 'beyond next year'
Exams in 2022 and beyond could be affected by Covid disruption, the Education Secretary has warned.
Gavin Williamson admitted he "very much expects" mitigations and adjustments to be in place for GCSE and A-level exams in the coming years.
Speaking at an education select committee hearing, Mr Williamson said: "We very much hope and intend for exams to go ahead in 2022, and vocational technical qualifications as well. We are considering what we need to do to ensure there is fairness and the right level of support for pupils as they take these qualifications."
Mr Williamson described how, when A-levels and GCSEs return in 2022 after two years of exams being cancelled due to the pandemic, it will not be "the absolutely same state of situation as it was back in 2019".
NSW Parliament suspended as minister among 11 new cases
Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), reported a double digit rise in new locally acquired cases of Covid-19 for the third straight day as the state's parliament was suspended in the wake of a minister testing positive.
Eleven new local cases were reported on Thursday, taking the total infections in the latest outbreak to more than 40. NSW is fighting to contain a fresh outbreak of the highly contagious Delta virus variant in Sydney, Australia's largest city and home to a fifth of the country's 25 million population, with health officials saying transmission could be happening even through minimal contact with infected persons.
Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall said in a statement he had tested positive for Covid-19, while Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he was asked to self-isolate after he was deemed to be a close contact of a possible positive case. All MPs and staff who were at Parliament House on Tuesday or Wednesday have been told to self-isolate.
End business travel to keep green impact, experts urge
Business travel should be killed off, the government's advisers on climate change said as they called for the green impact of the pandemic to last for ever.
Lockdown conditions led to an historic 13 per cent drop in the UK's carbon emissions last year, mostly due to cuts in flying and car use, meaning by the end of 2020 the UK had cut its emissions by 50 per cent compared with 1990 levels.
But the gains were likely to be "illusory" unless positive behaviour changes were embedded, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said in its annual progress report.
It also waded into the row over the Planning Bill, saying that it should include guidance to ensure developments were compatible with green targets and resilient against overheating and other impacts of climate change.
Vaccine benefits outweigh rare side-effects, say US officials
US Federal officials said they plan to strengthen cautions about a rare side effect of some Covid-19 vaccines — chest pain and heart inflammation, mostly among teenagers and young adults.
But in an unusual joint statement, top US government health officials, medical organisations, laboratory and hospital associations and others stressed the overriding benefit of the vaccines.
"The facts are clear: this is an extremely rare side effect, and only an exceedingly small number of people will experience it after vaccination. Importantly, for the young people who do, most cases are mild, and individuals recover often on their own or with minimal treatment," the statement said.
There does seem to be a link between the Pfizer and Moderna shots and some cases of heart inflammation, experts said at a meeting on Wednesday of an outside panel that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccinations.
Number of children taking antidepressants jumps 40pc
The number of children taking antidepressants has soared to an all-time high during the pandemic, with a 40 per cent surge in drugs being prescribed to those under the age of 17.
The investigation comes amid warnings that rising numbers are suffering "locked-in trauma" following repeated lockdowns, school closures, isolation and fear of the virus.
More than 27,000 children were prescribed antidepressants last year, the figures show, with numbers peaking during the first lockdown, and two thirds of cases involving girls.
Overall, the figure was 40 per cent higher than five years ago, when 19,739 children were prescribed such drugs.
Study finds millions might have had Long Covid
More than two million people in England might have had Long Covid and suffered one or more Covid-19 symptoms that lasted at least 12 weeks, one of the biggest surveillance studies of coronavirus has found.
The REACT-2 study, led by Imperial College London, found that more than a third of people who have had Covid-19 reported symptoms that lasted at least 12 weeks, with one in 10 reporting severe symptoms which lasted that long.
"Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of Covid-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning," said Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme at Imperial.
The government-backed study was based on self-reported data from 508,707 adults between September 2020 and February 2021.
Today's top stories
Angela Merkel on Wednesday night threatened to scupper hopes of foreign holidays in Europe this summer by demanding that EU countries introduce mandatory quarantine for travelling Britons.
A brief clip of Her Majesty receiving Boris Johnson on Wednesday offered a rare insight into the historic meetings, as she revealed Matt Hancock had told her: “Things are getting better.”
Teachers have been accused of being “overcautious” with self-isolation as it has emerged the number of children being sent home to isolate has quadrupled despite Covid cases barely rising.
The Government looks likely to waive the mandatory quarantine requirement for 2,000 foreign football fans to enable them to attend the Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium, The Telegraph understands.
Only 41 cases of the so-called delta plus, or Nepal variant, have been found in the UK, despite ministers blaming it for their decision to shut down travel with Portugal.
Wearing face masks and social distancing when ordering at bars are expected to continue to be advised by the Government for months, even if the July 19 reopening goes ahead.