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16 Jul 2021

What you need to know about staying safe as Covid restrictions are lifted

How to protect yourself and others as restrictions ease, and the key new Covid-19 info to be aware of

In England, Covid restrictions are due to end on 19 July, but in a background of rising cases and increasingly transmissible variants, it's important to remain cautious.

While the vaccine roll-out gives us reasons to be optimistic and to enjoy a bit more freedom than we have in the past 18 months, the reality is that we still need to take steps to look after ourselves and others to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

The facts on Covid evolve almost as rapidly as the virus itself, so we've brought together the latest advice on vaccines, protective measures, key symptoms and more to arm you with the information you need to stay safe.

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1. Vaccination is key, but it doesn't make you invincible

The evidence is clear: being fully vaccinated is the best thing you can do to protect yourself and others against Covid.

It's very important to get both your first and second doses for maximum protection.

The vaccination roll-out in the UK has proved effective at breaking the chain between infections and hospitalisations, and you're unlikely to get severely ill with Covid if you've been vaccinated.

But you can still get infected and be quite unwell, and a smaller percentage of people may still end up in hospital, or contract long Covid, after being jabbed.

This is more likely due to new, more infectious strains of the virus such as the Delta variant, which has some level of breakthrough against vaccines due to mutations from the original strain.

Public Health England (PHE) says that one dose of AstraZeneca or Pfizer only protects people from symptomatic disease in around a third of cases, but after two jabs, it says AstraZeneca is about 60% effective, and Pfizer about 88% effective.

We don't really know for sure yet, though, and preliminary data from Israel - where breakthrough cases seem to be rising - suggests that the effectiveness of a double dose of Pfizer might be lower.

This isn't cause for panic, and Covid cases in vaccinated people should on the whole be much milder than those in non-vaccinated people. But it's a good reason for doing what you can to limit the spread, even after being vaccinated and when restrictions end.

2. Covid symptoms have evolved, so know what to look out for now

The three officially listed main Covid symptoms are a new, continuous cough, a high temperature and a loss of or sudden change in your sense of smell or taste.

But it's become clear that the range of symptoms can be quite a bit broader and variants may produce slightly different ones. Some experts have suggested the NHS should update its official symptom list - other countries list a broader range of symptoms.

New data from the ZOE Covid Symptom study suggests that the most common symptoms might also change depending on your vaccination status.

The data, taken from a large scale, ongoing study where people log their symptoms on an app, show the top five symptoms for fully vaccinated people as:

  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of smell

So, potentially easy to confuse with a common cold, or hay fever at this time of year.

If you've got troublesome symptoms, it's always worth isolating as best you can and booking a Covid test.

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3. Don't abandon your face covering

From 19 Julyit will no longer be mandatory in England to wear a face covering in enclosed public spaces, such as shops, and on public transport.

For now, it will still be mandatory to wear a face covering in most enclosed public spaces in Wales (even if there is a move to alert level zero on 7 August), Scotland (where Nicola Sturgeon has said they will remain for some time), and Northern Ireland (where face coverings will no longer be required in classrooms and places of worship from 26 July, but will still be required in other situations).

Some will be delighted to ditch their masks, but given that the primary function of mask-wearing is reciprocal community protection (face masks work best as a community effort in this context, rather than an individual one), it's understandable that this idea has some people concerned.

We know that wearing a mask can be irritating and people for whom they cause more serious issues are rightly exempt from wearing one.

But abandoning face mask requirements in confined public spaces has the potential to deepen health inequalities. It may disproportionately affect certain groups including the clinically extremely vulnerable and people who can't avoid commuting at busy times or are unable to work from home.

Transport and retail unions have expressed dismay at the scrapping of face covering rules and said they should be kept in place in certain situations to protect workers.

Paddy Lillis, General Secretary of the USDAW trade union, pointed out that 'to speak about the wearing of face coverings in these settings in terms of personal responsibility, ignores the reality that public facing workers have no option but to interact with large numbers of people as a part of their job'.

Masks will still be required in certain situations

City officials, transport companies and businesses can still implement their own conditions of travel, and they're likely to continue to be required for international travel. So, you'll need a stash of masks for certain situations.

So far places where masks will be mandatory or encouraged (apart from those who are exempt for medical reasons) include:

  • TfL has announced masks will still be required on London tubes and buses
  • National rail companies have suggested they will ask people to wear masks at busy times / when travelling to areas where masks are still required on public transport (e.g. Scotland)
  • Healthcare providers, such as GPs and hospitals, may also require you to wear a mask
  • Most supermarkets - including Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Aldi, Lidl and Asda - have said they'll continue to ask shoppers to wear masks if they can
  • This will also apply in some shops including Waterstones and John Lewis - so look out for signage in stores

We think, under the current circumstances, it's sensible to continue wearing a mask in crowded places, in shops and on public transport (unless you have a valid exemption) to maximise community protection.

And, as rules are likely to differ by business and region, it's worth having one handy at all times just in case.

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4. What you breathe in is more important than what you touch

In contrast to what was thought at the beginning of the pandemic, we now know that Covid is primarily an airborne disease and surfaces only play a minor role in transmission.

In practical terms, this means you don't need to worry as much about disinfecting objects such as shopping trolleys, or buying special germ-killing products, and instead focus more on good ventilation.

The International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene says that it's important that public venues operate targeted hygiene rather than 'hygiene theatre' - that is, indiscriminate and overzealous disinfection and so-called 'deep-clean' procedures (read: you really don't need to disinfect your food shopping).

That's not to say that sensible cleaning isn't important, but the key for keeping Covid infections down is good indoor ventilation, introduction of fresh air into a room, avoiding crowding and maintaining distance where possible. It's also why face coverings still have a role to play.

But what about the original golden rule of the pandemic? Well, washing your hands properly is still vital and a pillar of public health as it keeps risk down and helps protect you from other bugs, too.

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5. If travelling abroad, do your research to keep on top of the rules


Many people are desperate for a holiday and the travel industry is desperate to get you on one, too.

But if you do choose to go, you'll need to swot up on the rules both for getting in and out of the UK, and any rules the country you are travelling to may have - as these may differ and you'll need to comply with both.

For example, some EU countries have specific rules about what type of face covering you must wear when flying, and if you aren't prepared you might not get on the flight.

It will usually be a disposable surgical mask that's needed, although some countries require medical-grade respirator FPP masks. See our advice on buying a disposable mask for more information on the different types.

Testing rules are complex and choosing a test company is no picnic, either, so make sure you're prepared and keep an eye out if advice changes (which it does frequently).

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This story was originally published on 9 July 2021 but has since been updated to reflect the latest guidance and information. Last update 16 July 2021.