England is taking a step into the unknown on Monday, lifting nearly all remaining restrictions on public life at a time when coronavirus infections are high and rising.
From Monday, there will be no more limits on indoor gathering. Nightclubs can reopen, the 1-meter social distancing rule is removed and face masks become largely voluntary, although some airlines and transport companies have said they will retain mask-wearing requirements.
In essence, the majority of legal restrictions have now been lifted and replaced with an emphasis on personal responsibility as infections continue to rise.
There was no mention of “Freedom Day,” as Monday July 19 had previously been dubbed, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged caution as the country moved to “Step 4” of its roadmap of restriction-lifting.
“Please, please, please be cautious. Go forward tomorrow into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people and the risks that the disease continues to present,” Johnson said in a statement released by Downing Street Sunday night.
The lifting of restrictions had already been moved from June 21 to allow for more vaccinations to take place amid a surge in cases caused by the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
Cases remain high across the U.K. with 316,691 cases reported over the last seven days, up around 43% from the previous seven-day period. Hospitalizations are low but are creeping higher, with 4,313 people admitted to hospital in the last seven days, government data shows. In the last seven days, 283 people have died.
The vast majority of infections are currently among younger age groups who are not yet vaccinated, or are only partially protected. Recent events like the Euro 2020 soccer championships, which saw England fans gathered in pubs and bars around the country, have also been blamed for the rise in cases.
At the same time, the government continues to plow on with vaccinations. To date, 87.9% of U.K. adults have received a first dose of a vaccine and 68.3% of U.K. adults have received both doses. Having both doses of a vaccine greatly reduces the risk of infection and hospitalization caused by the coronavirus.
Experts have cautioned that hospitalizations could rise substantially over the coming weeks, however, and scientists have criticized plans to ease almost all Covid-19 restrictions, calling it unethical and dangerous for the entire planet. Others have defended the move, saying that there are many damaging consequences to remaining locked down, from the impact on the economy and livelihoods to mental health.
In a statement Sunday evening, the British government acknowledged that cases continue to rise but noted that the link with hospitalizations and deaths was “substantially weakened” due to the vaccination program as it urged all adults to come forward for both vaccine doses.
Analysts say the world will be watching the U.K with interest to see what happens.
Deutsche Bank Research Strategist Jim Reid noted on Monday that “the world will be watching the U.K. experiment with huge interest. It could show a pathway back towards normality or it could be a warning to even heavily vaccinated countries that Covid will be a problem for a decent length of time still.”
“Ahead of this symbolic day U.K. new cases dipped below 50k yesterday (Sunday) after two days above. The weekly growth rate is still strong though. Breaking down the numbers the big growth area over this period has been males aged 15-40. It’s the first time in the pandemic that there’s been a notable gender split. It strongly hints at the impact of millions of football fans watching the Euro football final at various venues around the country.”
Kallum Pickering, senior economist at Berenberg Bank, told CNBC on Monday that the economic impact of reopening was uncertain given that consumer behavior could be affected by the reopening, with some consumers more nervous about the lifting of restrictions such as mask-wearing.
“I doubt we’ll get a bounce but I think we’ll get a continued uptick in economic activity … but some of those uncertainties are certainly big ones. We’re going to have to take a look at some of the high frequency data, mobility statistics and the like to see actually what are the effects of the uncertainty of opening up and removing masks and does that actually deter people from going out onto the high street and restaurants and supermarkets,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe.”
Government defends reopening
Johnson, who is self-isolating after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who has Covid, defended the reopening on Monday.
“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it? This is the right moment,” Johnson said in a video statement.
“But we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there. Cases are rising, we can see the extreme contagiousness of the delta variant.”
Johnson said that there was an “immense consolation and satisfaction” that Covid vaccines have “very severely weakened the link between infection and hospitalization, and between infection and serious illness and death.”
The government said it would continue to review all data. It said it would “reinforce vaccine defences” by reducing the dosing interval of Covid vaccines from 12 to 8 weeks for all adults, would continue to use its test, trace and isolate system and that border controls will be maintained, including quarantine for all those traveling from a red list country, and for amber list countries unless individuals are double-vaccinated.
“Data will be continually assessed and contingency measures retained if needed during higher risk periods, but restrictions will be avoided if possible,” the government said.