The Duchess of Cornwall expressed her hopes that the country is over the worst of the pandemic as she and the Prince of Wales took part in their first mask-free royal event of the crisis.
Camilla’s comment came during an impromptu walkabout in the grounds of Exeter Cathedral, meeting members of the public in numbers not seen for more than a year.
But the duchess sounded a cautious note, telling one well-wisher the nation has to be careful.
The couple’s tour of the cathedral – part of a three-day trip to Devon and Cornwall – had been publicised in advance, another sign of a return to normality, and around 100 people turned out in blazing summer sunshine to welcome them.
After meeting local community and environmental groups in the open-air, Charles and Camilla walked over to a line of residents who had been waiting for them to arrive.
The duchess chatted to Exeter resident Sarah Clarke, who said afterwards: “She said it’s lovely to be here and hopefully we’re over the worst of it and I said ‘Fingers crossed’.
“She also said we’ve just got to be careful.”
Monday has been dubbed “freedom day” with most legal coronavirus restrictions in England being lifted by the Government as it moves to Step 4 of its pandemic recovery road map.
For the first time since March 2020, the two-metre social distancing rule is no longer being enforced and face coverings are no longer required by law, but the Government has said it “expects and recommends” that they are worn in crowded areas like public transport.
Despite the changes, the prince and duchess will abide by the regulations laid down by the hosts of royal events in future.
When the royal couple met various groups outside the cathedral they also chatted to Tuesday Masding, a senior healthcare assistant with North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust.
The NHS worker said after speaking to Camilla: “We were just discussing the relaxation of rules and how she hasn’t quite got around to shaking hands with people, and I said that’s probably an appropriate reaction.”
The Dean of Exeter, the Very Reverend Jonathan Greener, hailed the visit of the prince and duchess, who also learned about ongoing major renovations to the medieval place of worship.
He said: “It was a wonderful experience on such a lovely day – the first day of freedom – what more could you ask for?
“The sun’s shining, we don’t have to wear masks, they were both on sunny form – it was marvellous, and they were so interested in what people were telling them.”
The couple have worn a variety of face coverings during the pandemic, some disposable but mostly reusable designs, but went mask-free throughout the cathedral visit.
During a trip to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff earlier this month, Camilla touched her mask as she told a student: “I can’t wait to get rid of these.”
In the grounds of the cathedral, Charles and Camilla had met community groups including Devon Wildlife Trust, Exeter City Community Trust and the Met Office, which works with the cathedral and Exeter University on climate change research.
Inside the ancient building, the visit celebrated the city’s designation as a Unesco City of Literature and the launch of the Royal College of Nursing’s Prince of Wales Nursing Cadet Scheme in England.
Acclaimed writer Michael Morpurgo, whose book Warhorse was turned into a stage production and film, was invited along with other children’s authors and chatted to the duchess about the impact of the lockdowns on writers and readers.
He said afterwards the isolation had been a catalyst: “You’ve got no excuses not to write, an empty page is an empty page and you have to have the determination to fill it up.”
As Charles and Camilla left, the cathedral’s choristers formed a guard of honour and James Mason-Carney presented the prince with a copy of a book he illustrated, with the help of his artist-mother, called Tiggs And The Midnight Choir.
The schoolboy has suffered a series of serious illnesses including E Coli, a rare tropical disease, and most recently alopecia, and creating the artwork for the book, a ghost story featuring a young boy, an ancient cathedral and a choir, has been a welcome distraction.
Later Charles turned down the chance to tour a low emission bus when he visited the city’s new bus station and heard how Exeter is aiming to become a Net Zero City by 2030.
It is understood the heir to the throne declined to clamber onboard as it would have meant wearing a mask.