September 20, 2021

Covid-19: From ‘freedom day’ to ‘worry day’ in England

Some will see it as a sign of fate, others a particularly unwelcome coincidence. As England lifts almost all of its health restrictions on Monday July 19, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak were identified on Sunday as a contact case and will have to observe a period of ‘ten-day isolation.

The day before, it was the Minister of Health, Sajid Javid, who announced that he was positive for Covid-19. This is a big blow to the British government, which has embarked on a risky gamble by becoming the first country in the world to ease restrictions in the midst of an epidemic rebound.

For several weeks, the number of daily contaminations has panicked in the United Kingdom, which recorded more than 54,000 new cases on Saturday, five times more than in France. What tempers the optimism of the conservatives who wanted to make this Monday nicknamed ‘Freedom Day’ the symbol of the return to normal life.

‘Freedom is on the horizon again,’ said Sajid Javid a week earlier to ecstatic Tories throwing ‘Hallelujahs’ to greet the good news.

Concretely, this Monday marks the end of the one-meter social distancing instruction and attendance gauges. Places that are still closed, such as discotheques, will reopen while concerts can be organized at full capacity and teleworking will no longer be the norm.

As for fully vaccinated people residing in the United Kingdom and coming from countries classified as ‘orange’, among which many tourist destinations in Europe such as Italy or Spain, they will no longer need to observe quarantine. This relaxation will not apply to travelers returning from France, however.

But the most emblematic measure of this ‘Freedom Day’, renamed by some ‘Anxiety Day’, will be the lifting of the wearing of masks in all enclosed public places.

Cautious optimism

However, in the face of the controversy and the bad numbers of the epidemic, the government has seriously changed its rhetoric in recent days and increased calls for caution, even if it means sowing confusion among the population.

Admittedly, the mask is no longer compulsory, but it remains highly recommended in confined spaces and crowded places.

Many stores and transport operators will also continue to require the wearing of masks. This will be the case on the London Underground and buses, in Manchester trams or on board Brittany Ferries.

Customers and employees of Sainsbury’s supermarket chains or Waterstones bookstores are also welcome to come masked. In the UK, private companies are free to set their own health rules.

With unwavering enthusiasm, the British government is now playing the partition of cautious optimism. ‘The pandemic is not over,’ Boris Johnson recalled. But no question for the Prime Minister to backtrack. Vaccination, he said, should make it possible to live with the virus and revive the economy.

To date, 53.5% of Britons have received two doses of the vaccine and almost 70% have received their first injection. Vaccination coverage which, for supporters of openness, has broken the link between contamination and serious forms of the disease.

The death toll is indeed climbing much more slowly than the number of people infected in the United Kingdom, which gives hope for an epidemic recovery that is less fatal than the previous ones. Falling to less than ten, the number of deaths now fluctuates between forty and sixty per day.

Sorcerer’s apprentice

But not everyone reads these statistics the same: 1,200 scientists have signed aletter published in The LancetJuly 7 calling on the government to review a strategy labeled ‘dangerous experimentation’ that goes against medical ethics and poses a threat to the whole world.

If the number of hospitalizations is still low, it is increasing rapidly and could soon overwhelm hospitals, according to these experts. They also warn of the consequences for vulnerable people, sometimes more likely to develop long forms of Covid.

Finally, the all-round circulation of the virus would be conducive to the emergence of new variants potentially resistant to vaccines. The British Minister for Health has admitted that lifting the restrictions could mean 100,000 infections per day.

‘A variant that becomes dominant in the UK is likely to then spread across the globe. This strategy will not only have consequences for us. It could affect the whole world, ‘says Professor Christina Pagel of University College London.

To these voices, described as alarmist by the Conservatives, are added those of the Labor opposition. ‘We are against this lifting of restrictions without precautionary measures,’ said Jonathan Ashworth, the health man of Labor, in an interview with the BBC.

A concern shared by a majority of Britons. According to asurvey published by The Economist, two-thirds of the population are in favor of maintaining the restrictions for another month.

‘The country is not out of the woods yet,’ warned Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer. ‘The risk of getting into trouble again surprisingly quickly should not be underestimated.’