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Millions of vulnerable people who have been shielding from coronavirus will be allowed to gather in groups of up to six people outdoors from July 6, the government has announced.
Those who are shielding and live alone or are single parents with children will also be able to create a “support bubble” with one other household of any size, following the same rules already in place for the wider population.
There are around 2.2m people with underlying severe health conditions in England who have been advised to stay at home and avoid non-essential face-to-face contact during the coronavirus outbreak.
Revealing the plan on Monday, Matt Hancock said the relaxation of the rules was possible as infection rates were continuing to fall.
The government said a package of support for people who are shielding, including food and medicine deliveries, will continue until the end of July.
From August 1, the guidance will be relaxed further so clinically extremely vulnerable people will no longer be advised to shield.
Those who need to work and cannot do so from home will be told they are able to return to work as long as their workplace is “Covid secure”.
They will retain their priority for supermarket delivery slots, and still be able to access help with shopping, medication, phone calls and transport to medical appointments, the government said.
Hancock said the shielding programme had been “incredibly tough” but the “sacrifice” had “been for a purpose”.
“Shielding has involved not leaving your house for months, not seeing people you care about, not being able to wander to the park for some fresh air, or even pop to the shops for something you need,” the health secretary said.
“We knew it was a difficult ask, but these measures have been vital in saving lives.
“Now, with infection rates continuing to fall in our communities, our medical experts have advised that we can now ease some of these measures, while keeping people safe.”
Boris Johnson will tomorrow unveil his plan to reopen the hospitality sector from July 4, and announce the result of the review of the two-metre social-distancing rule.
The prime minister will first meet his most senior cabinet colleagues, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty, to discuss the review and the next phase of the recovery road map.
Johnson will then consult the cabinet and outline the plans to parliament for pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said today: “The reason we are able to move forward this week is because the vast majority of people have taken steps to contain the virus.
“The more we open up, the more important it is that everyone follows the social-distancing rules.
But the spokesperson added the government “will not hesitate to put the handbrake on” the relaxation of the lockdown if needed to “stop the virus running out of control”.