BRITAIN’S coronavirus death toll has risen by 15 — the lowest daily increase since mid-March — as Boris Johnson prepares to announce further easing of social distancing rules.
In another encouraging sign, the number of new cases fell below 1,000 for the first time since lockdown began 13 weeks ago, with 958 reported.
The prime minister faces a tough call as he seeks to help the economy by relaxing regulations while striving to avoid a second wave of infections.
But today he is expected to declare pubs, hairdressers, hotels, cinemas and art galleries can reopen on July 4.
And there was a reprieve last night for the millions of shielders — elderly and vulnerable people who have beenunder orders to stay at home at all times. From July 6 they will be able to spend time outdoors with up to five other people, revealed health secretary Matt Hancock at the Downing Street briefing.
If they live alone they will also be allowed to form ‘support bubbles’, allowing unrestricted contact with people from one other household.
The increases in virus deaths are usually lower after weekends because of lags in reporting.
But the latest rise — which takes the total who have died after testing positive to 42,647 — was the smallest since March 15. The rise in cases is lower than the 967 on March 23, when testing was far more limited than it is now. About one person per 1,700 is estimated to have Covid-19, down from one in 500 a month ago.
Mr Hancock said: ‘Each of the deaths is someone who’s loved and someone who we mourn — each death is one death too many. Nevertheless the fact we have a figure of reported deaths that, at 15, is much lower than any previous figure since the peak, is good news. All these figures are coming down — while there’s much to do, we’re clearly making progress.’
Mr Johnson is widely expected to scrap the two-metre rule after holding talks with his scientific advisers and ministers yesterday.
‘One metre-plus’ is likely to replace it, with measures such as masks used to lessen the potential effect of the relaxation.
Cultural venues that are tipped to be allowed to reopen on July 4, which also include museums, will be given guidance on limiting infection risk through one-way systems, spaced queuing, increased ventilation and pre-booking.
Lockdown measures could be brought back if cases start to rise.
‘We are only able to move forward this week because the vast majority of people have taken steps to control the virus,’ a No.10 source said.
‘But the more we open up, the more important it is that everyone follows the social distancing guidelines. We will not hesitate to reverse these steps if it is necessary to stop the virus running out of control.’
Niall Dickson, head of the NHS Confederation, warned: ‘The risk of a second surge is not over and we have seen elsewhere that the virus can return. While we support measures to move back to a more normal existence, the watchwords for now must be eternal vigilance.’