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by Dr Andrew Furber, Regional Director for Public Health England North West

MONDAY will mark the most significant milestone in almost 16 months with the lifting of COVID-19 legal restrictions and something resembling a return to normality.

Social distancing and stay at home rules have been our stabilisers throughout the pandemic, protecting us all and enabling us to suppress the virus at vital times to keep our NHS from being overwhelmed.

Now, the success of the unprecedented vaccine rollout undertaken by our incredible NHS colleagues means those stabilisers can start to come off and we can get moving independently again.

But as we pedal towards a life with fewer restrictions, we must be aware that coronavirus is our new ‘normal’ and our battle with the virus continues.

Here in the North West, we still have a lot of work to do if we are to make this transition a smooth ride, because the virus will not suddenly disappear from July 19 – and we still have some hills to climb.

  • Case rates in the North West are increasing and they are expected to rise further over the coming weeks, especially as we mix more with others from Monday.

Although deaths and hospitalisations are lower, thanks to the success of the vaccination programme, COVID-19 is a virus you really do not want to catch. It can still make you very sick, and many people suffering from long COVID are experiencing ill effects weeks and months after they tested positive.

The risks of falling ill are especially great for those who have not yet had both doses of the vaccine – currently, approximately 61% of adults in the North West have had their second dose. Vulnerable groups are also at higher risk of more serious illness if they catch COVID and not everyone in this group will have been vaccinated.

From Monday, whilst there will no longer be a need to legally enforce rules like mask-wearing and social distancing, the onus is now on the public to make informed decisions and use their judgement and common sense to keep themselves and others safe.

Whilst we learn to live with the virus, we must carry on protecting each other in the same ways we have done over the past 16 months.

COVID-19 has not gone away and you could become severely unwell or pass on the virus to someone without knowing. We must all be sensible and consider risks to ourselves and others.

Getting both jabs is the best way to ensure strong protection against the virus, so it remains vital people keep coming forward for the vaccine.

The more coverage we have, the more we minimise the impact of a rise in cases this summer. So do not hesitate to get yours, if you haven’t already done so.

  • Everyone over 18 can now book to have their first dose on the NHS portal.

Don’t throw your masks away. If you’re in crowded spaces or on public transport where it’s difficult to keep your distance, please wear it, especially whilst rates are going up, as you may be carrying COVID-19 without any symptoms and come into contact with unvaccinated people.

If others around us are wearing a mask, let us be respectful and keep a distance – they may be feeling uneasy about the reopening. Let’s be kind.

Remember to keep washing your hands thoroughly and more often than usual, especially before and after getting on public transport or getting in from work, shops or the pub.

And if we know we are meeting up with friends and family, minimise the risk of passing on the virus by meeting outside as much as possible.

Think about whether they are vulnerable and whether either of you had one or two doses of the vaccine. Get a test before you meet up.

Meetings others outside is much safer than indoors as the fresh air helps to blow the COVID-19 particles away. So, make the most of the warm weather over the summer and meet family and friends outside.

  • If you work in an enclosed space or come into contact with lots of people, twice-weekly lateral flow tests will continue to be available – as this really helps us to track infection and stop transmission.

Make testing part of your routine – especially if you’re going to come into contact with others. You can collect free rapid tests from your local pharmacy or order online at gov.uk

If you are feeling unwell, don’t risk passing on the virus and making others sick – self-isolate and get a PCR test.

Ensuring these protections are a part of our everyday behaviours will control the transmission of the virus as we return to a more normal life.

And by thinking of others, recognising these sensitivities and showing respect, we can make this transition safer for everyone.

North West residents have made huge personal sacrifices since the start of the pandemic and our region has been through difficulties we never expected to see.

So, it is right that we look forward to Monday with anticipation and excitement, but also an awareness that this is not all over and we all still have a role to play in keeping each other safe.

Guidance: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/covid-19-coronavirus-restrictions-what-you-can-and-cannot-do

Moving to step 4 of the Roadmap: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-response-summer-2021-roadmap