COVID-19 infections in England are soaring, but almost all coronavirus restrictions have been removed.
Nightclubs, bars and theatres have been allowed to fully reopen with no limits on how many people can gather, ending more than a year of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
For respiratory virologist Brian Oliver’s mum, who lives in England, the ending of most COVID-19 restrictions has come as a great relief.
Professor Oliver said his mum had to stay home for the past 18 months because she has Crohn’s disease and could not risk becoming infected.
“That hasn’t had any positive effects on her mental health in any way, shape or form,” he told The New Daily.
Now that she is vaccinated, his mum – like millions of others – has the freedom to leave her home and enjoy a life without restrictions.
“Some people were literally losing the will to live in that locked-down society,” Professor Oliver said.
The reopening doesn’t mean England is in the clear, though.
Britain still has the seventh-highest death toll in the world and on Sunday it reported 48,161 new cases.
Some experts worry that infections could skyrocket to 100,000 a day with no restrictions in place.
So why has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson given the all clear?
It comes down to the country’s successful vaccination rollout.
Nearly all (87 per cent) of Britain’s adult population has had one vaccination dose, and more than 68 per cent have had the required two doses.
As a result, daily deaths are hovering around 40 per day, which is a fraction of the peak of more than 1800 seen in January.
Mr Johnson therefore asked rhetorically on Sunday (UK time): “If we don’t do it now, we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?”
Back to normal?
No sooner had restrictions been lifted than thousands of unmasked partygoers packed nightclubs early on Monday (local time) to celebrate the change of rules, on what has been dubbed “freedom day” in England.
Professor Oliver, who heads the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at the University of Technology Sydney, said England has “taken quite a brave move”.
It’s well known that keeping borders closed and imposing severe lockdowns will limit the spread of COVID-19.
But Professor Oliver said they are not viable options over the long term.
“If you had severe lockdowns for a year and a half, imagine how people are feeling,” he said.
Professor Oliver said we also don’t know the severity of infection in those who have tested positive.
“It could well be that, yes, there’s a lot of people that are positive, but they can be people that have been vaccinated or partially vaccinated, and they may have minimal symptoms.”
But even still, there is a risk of new COVID variants popping up given how fast the virus is spreading through Britain.
And it’s unknown how effective the current batch of vaccines will be against emerging mutant strains.
“I’m a little scared to see what will come out of the UK,” Professor Oliver said.
“But I think we need probably to give the UK a good six months. And then to look back on what the effective reopening is to actually work out whether it was a good idea or not.”
A potential path out
Despite being shrouded in uncertainty, Britain’s COVID experiment does show Australians that there is a way out of the pandemic – and that the exit road is paved with vaccines.
London residents who spoke to TND welcomed the easing of restrictions, though many said they would remain cautious.
“Being around people will bring more joy to life because everyone has been depressed because of the lockdown,” said Luisa Edgecombe, who lives in London.
“I will still be wearing my mask, especially in trains and tubes, and also when in shops,” she added.
“I feel safer wearing it.”
Fellow London resident Charlie Harrison is also looking forward to hanging out with his friends.
“My life probably won’t change much. I’ll keep my mask on, keep social distance if I have to, keep doing tests if I feel unwell,” he said.
“Freedom day means to me that probably I’ll be able to do more stuff, drinking with more friends. That’s basically what’s going to change, really.”
If the vaccines prove effective in reducing severe illness and deaths even while infections reach record levels, Mr Johnson’s decision could offer a path out of the worst public health crisis in decades.
If not, more lockdowns could loom.