UK celebrates ‘freedom day’ but Covid cases peak
- The country has lifted legal mandates on social distancing, wearing masks and working from home, urging personal responsibility instead. Covid-19 travel rules and self-isolation for close contacts remain in place.
Day-to-day pandemic restrictions were lifted in England on Monday as the country’s “freedom day” met with deep concern from scientists as coronavirus cases surge across the nation.
The country has lifted legal mandates on social distancing, wearing masks and working from home, urging personal responsibility instead. Covid-19 travel rules and self-isolation for close contacts remain in place.
Nightclubs reopened their floors to dancing for the first time since March 2020, while sports stadia, cinemas and theatres can now run at full capacity.
But while businesses are jubilant, many are worried about the government’s decision to scrap restrictions at a time when Covid-19 cases are on an upswing as the Delta variant, first detected in India, sweeps parts of Europe and Asia.
Cases topped 50,000 per day last week for the first time since January, although virus deaths remain comparatively low so far.
The country added more than 54,000 new cases Saturday, and over 47,600 on Sunday, more than Indonesia, the pandemic’s current epicenter, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University,
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has dialled down talk of freedom in recent weeks, urged the public to exercise “prudence and respect for other people and the risks that the disease continues to present”.
The Prime Minister was spending “Freedom Day” in quarantine, along with treasury Rishi Sunak, after contact with health secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday.
Johnson tested negative for the disease on Monday.
British officials have repeatedly expressed confidence that the U.K.’s vaccine rollout — 68.3% of adults, or just over half of the total population, has received two doses — will keep the threat to public health at bay.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said he was “confident” the government was “doing the right thing” now, before any winter resurgence in respiratory disease.
But scientists described England’s “Freedom Day” as a threat to the whole world, and 1,200 scientists backed a letter to British medical journal The Lancet that criticized the Conservative government’s decision.
“I can’t think of any realistic good scenario to come out of this strategy, I’m afraid,” said Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester. “I think it’s really a degree of how bad it’s going to be.”
The end of restrictions in England is a critical moment in Britain’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 128,000 people nationwide, the highest death toll in Europe after Russia. Other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are taking slightly more cautious steps out of lockdown and keeping mask requirements for now.
Globally, the World Health Organization says cases and deaths are climbing after a period of decline, spurred by the delta variant.
European nations including Greece, the Netherlands and Spain have been forced to reimpose restrictions to battle new outbreaks recently.
In the U.S., many areas abandoned face coverings when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear them in most settings.