“Freedom Day” arrives in England, ready or not

LONDON – With a further rise in coronavirus infections, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday urged Britons to continue wearing face masks in crowded indoor spaces, even though he pledged to unlock England’s economy on Monday. next week and lift almost all virus restrictions.

Mr Johnson’s warning on the masks, while not mandatory, represents the latest drift from a government that delayed the imposition of several lockdowns and then pledged the “irreversible” lifting of the restrictions, resulting in the British tabloid newspapers called it “the day of freedom”.

After delaying this moment once, Mr Johnson on Monday confirmed his intention to proceed with the removal of most legal restrictions in England on July 19, allowing pubs and restaurants to operate at full capacity and nightclubs to open. their doors. Restrictions on the number of people who can meet indoors, usually limited to six, will also be lifted.

Despite the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, the government believes Britain’s successful vaccination program has weakened the link between cases and hospital admissions. The government now argues that there is no better time to end lockdown restrictions than in the summer, when the virus tends to spread more slowly and schools take vacations, eliminating one source transmission.

Yet the landmark once boldly hailed as ‘the day of freedom’ by libertarian lawmakers is now being billed much more cautiously by the government as Britain registers around 30,000 cases per day, a number the Secretary Health, Sajid Javid, said Monday could climb. to 100,000 during the summer.

“Whether we like it or not, the coronavirus will not go away,” Mr Javid told Parliament.

The government’s decision to recommend the continued use of face masks in crowded indoor spaces is a change, at least in tone, from a week ago, when Mr Johnson laid out his thinking at a conference of hurry.

When asked if he would wear a mask, he replied that “it would depend on the circumstances”, before later specifying that he would wear one on a crowded train.

On Monday, Mr Johnson adopted a decidedly cautious tone. “I cannot say it with enough force or emphasis,” he said at a press conference. “This pandemic is not over. This disease, the coronavirus, continues to pose risks to you and your family. We cannot just instantly revert Monday July 19 to life as it was before Covid. “

Mr Johnson added that the government has strongly recommended that people wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces such as on public transport.

The government plans to work with the organizers of large indoor events to encourage the use of the certification for those who have been vaccinated or recently tested.

Mr Johnson said he wanted a gradual return to the workplace rather than a mass return to offices next week. And Britain’s border restrictions would remain in place, including the quarantine of hotels for those arriving from countries considered to be in the highest risk category.

Nonetheless, Mr Johnson argued that delaying a full reopening of the economy will only postpone any increase in infections until the fall, when schools return and colder weather will give the virus a natural advantage. So he wants to replace an era of government diktat with an era of growing personal responsibility as people learn to live with the virus and use common sense to protect themselves.

Such a focus on personal responsibility over legal bans has already led to decisions such as opening Wembley Stadium to more than 60,000 fans on Sunday for the European Football Championship final.

According to the rules, participants had to show proof of a negative coronavirus test or a full vaccination, which requires that the second of two doses of vaccine be given at least 14 days before the game.

But the lifting of the remaining restrictions next week inevitably creating confusion among a British public who, according to opinion polls, are wary of a massive rejection of the rules.

Mike Tildesley, an infectious disease modeling expert who sits on a government science advisory board, told the BBC the country was in a “sticky phase” and said ministers’ “mixed messages” on face masks were a concern.

“I think it’s actually quite confusing for people to know what’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Some business lobby groups have taken the same point of view. “Business leaders are not public health experts and they cannot be expected to know how to best function when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice comes from official sources,” said Claire Walker, Co-Executive Director of the British Chambers of Commerce.

“Without clear direction, he  could be real uncertainty about how businesses should operate from July 19 and what they should do to keep staff and customers safe, ”she added.  

Others argue that the government is pursuing an unspoken strategy of “herd immunity”, allowing the virus to circulate in the population until enough people develop antibodies to curb its spread.

Britain has built immunity through its widespread deployment of vaccines. Sixty-six percent of the UK adult population has received two doses of a vaccine with good levels of protection. Soaring infection rates among young people, who tend to suffer less severely, could potentially provide high levels of immunity.

“The idea of ​​living with Covid has been in the UK government for a very long time,” David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, said in an interview last week. “This is the only way to rationally explain what they did.”

The problem with this approach, Mr King said, is that it leaves Britain with high viral content in its society, which leaves it vulnerable to mutations that could create fast-spreading or more deadly variants. One of the first dangerous variants, known as the Alpha, originated in Kent, in the south-east of England, and spread around the world.

“Variants are emerging in parts of the world where there is a lot of viral content,” King said, pointing to India and the Delta variant. “We are joining this gang by allowing high viral content to stay in our population.”

The government denies having pursued, or ever pursued, a collective immunity strategy. But while opponents of the lockdown on Mr Johnson’s libertarian wing of Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party have welcomed the lift, opposition politicians have been more critical.

Jonathan Ashworth, who speaks for the opposition Labor Party on health issues, accused the government of pursuing a “high-risk, even fatalistic approach” that would allow cases to escalate. Caroline Lucas, a Green Party lawmaker, said the government was implementing a “Darwinian strategy based on immunity by national infection.”

The message on face masks on public transport, she said, has been “downgraded from a clear legal obligation to an optional personal choice.”

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