QUESTIONS have been raised over whether restrictions on face masks should be eased this month amid rising cases of the coronavirus.

Yesterday, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick all but confirmed that England would move into the "final furlong" of Covid-19 restrictions on July 19.

Rumours were abound on Sunday that Boris Johnson, who is due to update the nation today on plans for unlocking, is due to scrap social distancing and mask-wearing requirements on so-called “Freedom Day”.

Last week the North-East overtook the North-West in becoming the place with the highest rates of Covid-19, with figures nearing those seen at the peak of the second wave of the virus.

The Northern Echo: Durham MP Mary Foy

Labour MP Mary Foy, whose Durham constituency has seen a spike in cases, said: "While we obviously can't live under coronavirus restrictions forever, the Government clearly said it would be driven by data, not dates.

"Sadly, some of the highest case rates are here in the North-East, so I would seriously question the decision to end the mandatory wearing of face masks and social distancing so soon.

"While rates remain high, it's so important that we all continue to take care of ourselves and each other and, until we see cases begin to drop once again, I intend to continue wearing a mask in enclosed public spaces."

We are of course all looking forward to the day when these restrictions can be completely lifted, but this has to be done in a careful and measured way which doesn't put anyone else at risk. To simply pick an arbitrary date as the Health Secretary has done here does not inspire confidence in his ability to handle the pandemic any better than the previous one."

Yesterday, cabinet minister Mr Jenrick said that, although cases were rising, they had not translated into “serious illness and death”, allowing the Government to be “positive” about unlocking on July 19.

“It does feel as if we are now in the final furlong, in a period in which we can start to live with the virus and move on with our lives,” he said.

Mr Jenrick – who pledged to get rid of his face covering when permitted – said the “State won’t be telling you what to do” as ministers look to move from legal enforcement to personal choice, with people exercising their own judgment on whether or not to carry on wearing masks.

The Northern Echo: Sedgefield MP Paul Howell

Sedgefield MP Paul Howell said: "I would endorse a more voluntary led regime if the data is showing that the link between cases and hospitalisation is broken.

"My belief is that if the link is broken and we do not risk putting the NHS under excessive pressure then then it is appropriate to relieve the pressures people are suffering due to the restrictions.

"I would wear a mask when I felt it appropriate or required by a place I chose to visit and think the time is right for us to allow people to use their common sense."

Peter Gibson, the Conservative MP for Darlington, said: “If official guidance indicates that mask wearing and social distancing can be dispensed with, I think the people of Darlington will welcome that, provided it is safe to do so. This surely has to be part of our vaccine dividend.”

Labour's Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, said he would continue to wear a mask due to living with a vulnerable person. He added: "The Minister talking about personal responsibility is a bit rich in view of the actions by the former Health Secretary and the inaction of his Prime Minister.

"We cannot live locked down forever, and there will come a time when we have to return to normal life and learn to live with Covid. At any stage, opening up the economy will inevitably lead to a rise in covid case, and it is vital people get fully vaccinated to protect themselves.

"The Government really must as a priority address the absurdly low levels of sick pay to allow people to self isolate without reducing themselves and their families to penury if they do test positive."

He added: "The government's handling of covid has been characterised by indecision, mix messaging self interest and chaos, and nothing in recent weeks suggests the transition to life living with covid will be any different.”

Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham said he would be wary of not wearing a mask in enclosed places.

He said: "With nearly two weeks before the Government’s next deadline and against the background of rising infection rates, I'm amazed at statements from Tory Ministers who have made so many premature announcements only to backtrack at the last minute. We all remember the normal Christmas promised by Boris Johnson which was largely cancelled after everyone had made plans.

"They really need to do the right thing and monitor the data before making decisions like they are. We all want certainty not speculative and ill informed statements.

" I for one will be very wary of not wearing a mask particularly in enclosed places until the government can prove its safe to ditch them"

Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham, said: “The good thing about the United Kingdom’s world leading vaccine programme is that the link between cases and hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19 has now largely been broken.

"I urge anyone who has not yet taken up the offer of a vaccine to do so as soon as they possibly can. As to the future, we await Government guidance, which has been scientifically led throughout the crisis to see what the future holds and I will continue to follow that guidance.”

The possibility of a wholesale easing of restrictions will come as a blow to senior doctors, with the British Medical Association petitioning for some measures to remain in place to arrest the “alarming” rise in Covid-19 cases in England.