Britain prepares to ‘live with the virus’ and remove nearly all COVID restrictions
LONDON — Boris Johnson announced Monday that England was set to soon end virtually all government mandates to control the spread of the coronavirus, telling people that in two weeks it likely will be completely up to them whether to wear a mask or socially distance.
At an evening news conference from 10 Downing Street, the British prime minister said the country was ready to move beyond one of the longest, most restrictive series of lockdowns on the planet, turning away from a public health strategy that relied on “government legal diktat” to one based on “personal responsibility.”
He cautioned that the pandemic was not over, but it was time for restrictions to end soon. He said this was only possible because the vaccines were doing their job and protecting the population from infection and serious illness.
If the current trends hold, and Johnson suggested they would, then he expected the full reopening on July 19, dubbed “Freedom Day” by the media. At that time, Johnson foresaw all night clubs, museums, concert halls, theaters and sports arena to be allowed to operate without capacity limits or distancing measures.
After the reopening, the government will no longer press people to work from home if they can. Customers will no longer be required to “check in” at pubs and restaurants or use government test-and-trace apps.
If you want to crowd into a packed bar in Soho and fight the scrum for a pint at the counter, the government says it is up to you to decide whether to mask.
Though some buses, subways and taxis may ask riders to wear face coverings, the government said it would not legally enforce the measures.
One newspaper called it “the big bang” of reopenings.
Scientific advisers said that after July 19, the government will essentially be treating COVID-19 like seasonal flu, with a few exceptions. The government will still legally mandate that those who test positive for the virus self-isolate. New rules regarding international travel and schools are expected later this week.
During the long arc of the pandemic, Johnson and the British government have loved to deploy snappy slogans. The latest is “Hands, Face, Space.” Before that, “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.” And quite a few more before that.
Ministers are now repeating the line that the public must now “learn to live with the virus,” which does raise the question of what people have been doing for the past 16 months, through three national lockdowns and 128,000 deaths.
In his remarks, Johnson urged the people to “act responsibly” and “exercise judgment” and “carefully manage” their risks.
Johnson said, “I will obviously wear a mask in crowded places where you meet people you do not know . . . to protect others and as a matter of simple courtesy.”
As an example of allowing people to weigh their own risks, Johnson said, it would make sense to wear a mask on a crowded car in the London Underground, but a passenger might feel safe without a covering on an empty train out in the countryside.
Ministers concede that infections will likely rise when mandates are eased, but the government hopes that the number of hospitalizations and deaths will be limited by the ongoing vaccination campaign, one of the most successful in the world. Some 45 million people have had a first vaccine dose in Britain — about 85% of the adult population - and another 33 million have had their second.
Johnson’s plan to lift all restrictions applies only to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in charge of their own public health rules. Scotland may keep mask-wearing in place, for example, until a review in August.
Johnson’s decision to fully open for commerce, domestic travel and summer fun comes with risks. The prime minister has lifted lockdowns and eased measures in the past, only to see the virus come roaring back.
Britain may arguably be in the middle a third wave of infections now, with new cases soaring to 25,000 a day, twice the numbers seen in the much larger United States.
At Monday’s news conference, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned that the country could see 50,000 new coronavirus cases a day in two weeks’ time.
The rising cases, doubling every eight days, are driven by the delta variant, which was first detected in India. The new strain is now dominant in Britain and scientists estimate it may be 40 to 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant that was earlier predominant.
In sign of how widespread the new surge is, Kensington Palace said Monday that Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, is in isolation after last week coming into contact with someone who has subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Her Royal Highness is not experiencing any symptoms, but is following all relevant government guidelines and is self-isolating at home,” said the palace. Her last public event was a visit to Wimbledon on Friday.
Johnson’s move to make mask-wearing voluntary has been met with criticism by some scientists, who fear a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
One researcher, Susan Michie, a psychologist at University College London, and a member of the government’s SAGE committee of scientific advisers, tweeted, “Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate.”
Peter English, an expert in communicable disease and former editor of the journal Vaccines in Practice, told science reporters that “government ministers who have declared that they will not show consideration to vulnerable people by wearing a mask - and thereby encouraged others in this approach — have been hugely irresponsible, and shown a gross failure of leadership.”
The British Medical Association was urging the government to continue to advise the public to wear masks in public areas such as shops and public transport, and to stress the importance of good ventilation.
Britain now has a new health secretary, Sajid Javid, replacing Matt Hancock, who resigned in late June after a tabloid newspaper obtained footage of the married minister passionately kissing a top aide inside his office — violating the very social distancing rules he had written.
In contrast with Hancock’s more cautious approach, Javid is gung-ho to move forward and open the country fully. He acknowledged that some people will become sick and some will die, but said the pandemic is under control and it is time to move on.
“No date we choose comes with zero-risk for COVID,” Javid told the House of Commons. “We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it.”
In a piece for the Mail on Sunday, Javid wrote that the months of restrictions have come at great cost: “Rules that we have had to put in place have caused a shocking rise in domestic violence and a terrible impact on so many people’s mental health.”