British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ending more than a year of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in England, urging the public to remain cautious but putting his faith in vaccines to protect the country even as infections are surging.
On Monday – dubbed “Freedom Day” by British media – Mr Johnson will lift regulations in favour of restarting an economy damaged by on-off lockdowns since March 2020, marking a new chapter in the global response to the coronavirus.
If vaccines continue to prove effective in reducing severe illness and deaths even while infections reach record levels, Mr Johnson’s decision could inform other highly vaccinated countries’ approach to returning to normal.
But the strategy comes with risks – most notably that a variant capable of resisting vaccines could emerge, or the caseload could grow so severe that the economy grinds to a halt. Given that, Mr Johnson has urged the public to take a cautious approach to the reopening.
“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?” he said in a video message filmed on Sunday.
“This is the right moment but we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there.”
Britain has the seventh highest COVID death toll in the world, 128,708.
It is forecast to soon have more new infections each day than it did at the height of a second wave of the virus earlier in 2021. On Sunday there were 48,161 new cases.
But, outstripping European peers, 87 per cent of Britain’s adult population has had one vaccination dose, and more than 68 per cent have had the two doses that provide even more protection. Daily deaths of about 40 are just a fraction of the peak of more than 1800 in January.
From midnight (local time), laws in England requiring face masks to be worn in shops and other indoor settings will lapse, as will capacity limits in bars and restaurants, and rules limiting the number of people who can socialise together.
Mr Johnson sets COVID-19 restrictions for England, with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making their own policies.
However, the ambition to reopen the economy could be thwarted, with the tens of thousands of new infections every day forcing hundreds of thousand of workers to self-isolate: Not just people who are infected but people they have been in close contact with.
The issue hit close to home at the weekend: Mr Johnson and his finance minister Rishi Sunak are among those self-isolating after health minister Sajid Javid tested positive for the virus on Saturday. A plan for Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak to dodge the 10-day quarantine requirement was abandoned on Sunday after a public outcry.
The government’s own chief medical adviser has warned the crisis could return again surprisingly quickly if case numbers spiral. Mr Johnson has also highlighted the risk of new variants and urged citizens to complete the vaccine program.