Britain’s government confirmed on Monday it will press ahead with “Freedom Day” next week by lifting most pandemic curbs in England, but urged caution as experts warned that politicians were moving too fast.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted the time was right to move from enforceable rules to personal responsibility, and use the summer months to prepare for a potentially more damaging wave of Covid-19 in the winter.
After a month-long delay to get the proportion of the population fully vaccinated up to two-thirds, he said most requirements enshrined in law would end next Monday.
Scientists are fretting that the ending of measures such as mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing spells trouble, and said other guidance such as working from home should also stay in place.
But nightclubs and other venues will be allowed to reopen, with patrons “expected” to show a negative Covid test under a certification scheme based on a government app, officials said.
The government likewise expects people to wear masks on public transport and in enclosed spaces, but businesses will no longer enjoy legal backing to enforce the requirement.
“This is about as good a time as any,” Johnson told a news conference, has vowed to “restore our freedoms” ahead of the “natural firebreak” of summer holidays.
But he appealed for “common sense” and warned the public: “Don’t be demob happy about this.
“I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough: this pandemic is not over.”
Britain is now averaging more than 30,000 daily cases of the fast-spreading Delta coronavirus variant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid conceded anew that the caseload could reach 100,000 a day in the coming months, but stressed that the link to hospitalizations and deaths was “severely weakened”.
“We will stay vigilant and keep a very close eye on the data as well as on the impact of long Covid,” he told MPs, referring to a set of protracted after-effects suffered by many.
John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, said that by shifting away from rules to personal accountability, the Conservative government “seems to be reneging on its responsibility to protect its citizens”.
And the government’s decision to allow more than 60,000 football fans to attend Sunday’s European Championship final between England and Italy fuelled experts’ fears, after near-total flouting of distancing rules.
Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead for the World Health Organization, said it felt “devastating” watching the soccer showpiece on television.
“#SARSCoV2 #DeltaVariant will take advantage of unvaccinated people, in crowded settings, unmasked, screaming/shouting/singing,” she tweeted.
But while infection rates have jumped, deaths remain relatively stable in Britain after the mass vaccination campaign, and right-wing media are acclaiming July 19 as “Freedom Day”.
There are signs the campaign is petering out, however, with take-up rates among younger adults waning.
Sarah Clarke, a board member of the UK’s Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said there had been a 60 percent increase in ICU admissions over the past week, and “we have over 500 patients being admitted per day into intensive care”.
“I would absolutely err on the side of extreme caution,” she told Times Radio about the government’s plan.
The UK’s other nations — Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — set their own health policy and are moving more cautiously.
Businesses in England have welcomed the coming shift, after months of a third lockdown that has left many companies operating on government-backed life support.
Accountancy firm BDO said that its business optimism indicator jumped to 112.45 points in June, the highest level since 2005.