Outlining government plans in parliament on 5 July, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said the pandemic was not over and that the 'risk of a dangerous new variant that evades vaccines remains real'.
However, Mr Javid - speaking in the House of Commons as prime minister Boris Johnson set out the same plans at a Downing Street press conference - confirmed social distancing, mask requirements and limited numbers at events and workplaces would all be scrapped.
The government plans to press ahead with relaxing rules despite Mr Javid advising MPs that 'cases of COVID-19 are rising - and will continue to rise significantly', admitting that by 19 July the number of daily cases would be 'far higher' than now.
COVID-19 cases rising
The BMA said the government's decision to go 'full steam ahead' with relaxing rules in the face of rising cases and hospitalisations - and the prospect of more deaths from COVID-19 - was 'incredibly concerning'.
Doctors' leaders warned that the move would drive up pressure on the NHS and undermine efforts to work through the huge backlog of care created by the pandemic - warning the government had 'fallen short' of its duty to protect people's health.
Mr Javid told MPs that 86% of adults had received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 64% had received two doses - and he said vaccinations were building 'a wall of protection against hospitalisations'.
However, official figures show that cases of COVID-19 are rising fast across the UK and that hospitalisations are also increasing. A total of 178,128 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the seven days to 5 July, 53% up from the previous week and 2.5 times the figure for two weeks earlier.
In England alone, 2,009 people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in the week to 3 July, up 47% compared with the previous seven days.
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'The NHS is already under immense pressure trying to cope with an unprecedented backlog of care. While admittedly the link between hospitalisations and deaths has weakened, it has not been broken and we now have twice as many people in hospital and on ventilators compared to a month ago. Even modest rises in patients being admitted to hospital will undermine our ability to treat the record 5m patients waiting for treatment.
'Worryingly, approximately one in 10 people who contract the virus will have symptoms of long COVID, with an estimated 2m people having been ill for more than 12 weeks. This is having a frightening long-term impact on health and wellbeing, wrecking the lives of many.
'Why is the prime minister knowingly putting more people at risk of becoming ill when masks are proven to be effective and can reduce spread of infection? It will also impact on the economy and businesses if more staff become ill and unable to work.
'The emphasis on personal responsibility around mask wearing and other safety measures is incoherent as many of these measures, such as mask wearing, do not in the main protect the individual but those around them. This cannot be about 'personal choice' when the risk comes from others around you not wearing them.
'It is inconceivable that the government would allow for people, many of whom have no choice but to get public transport or be in confined places, to have to take the risk of becoming ill, particularly those who have not been fully vaccinated or cannot take the vaccine for health reasons.'
Several senior NHS officials have confirmed they will continue to wear masks despite the government dropping legal requirements. As the government announcements took place, NHS England primary care medical director Dr Nikki Kanani tweeted: 'Masks work.'
Dr Nagpaul urged the government to reconsider its plans and to maintain 'mandatory wearing of facemasks in enclosed indoor public settings, until the rampant spread of infection has been brought under control and more of the population are fully vaccinated'.
The government announcement over changes to COVID-19 rules came as polling by YouGov revealed that the vast majority of people support requirements for mask-wearing on public transport and in enclosed public spaces.
The majority of Britons say face masks should continue to be mandatory on both public transport (71%), as well as in shops and some enclosed public spaces (66%) beyond when restrictions are liftedhttps://t.co/hlpfOq16kg pic.twitter.com/hxva59kEiC— YouGov (@YouGov) July 5, 2021
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor added: 'We all want to go back to normal - health and care staff included. But while health leaders are fully aware that restrictions cannot persist indefinitely, it’s important to remember we are not out of the woods yet.
'We hope the government is right to be relaxed about the planned final easing of the restrictions, including dropping the requirements to wear masks and to socially distance, but there is a real risk that doing so could lead to further mutations of the virus and increased pressures on all parts of the NHS.'