Freedom, what freedom? Boris Johnson warns of autumn Covid restrictions

Most plan to keep wearing masks as 16 months of coronavirus restrictions come to an end

Boris Johnson warned England that new Covid restrictions would come back in September even as most people reacted cautiously to the drop in pandemic curbs on so-called “Freedom Day” on Monday.

Speaking from his own self-isolation after a Cabinet colleague contracted the virus last week, Mr Johnson said proof of a double vaccine dose would be needed to enter crowded venues such as nightclubs when the cooler weather returned. For the most part, Mr Johnson said he hoped the path out of Covid-19 lockdown would remain irreversible.

Almost nine in 10 residents of the UK have received one dose and the timetable should see double vaccinations almost complete by the end of September. About 68 per cent of adults have now had two doses.

“I can serve notice now that by the end of September when all over 18s will have had their chance to be double jabbed, we're planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather,” Johnson said. “Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough.”

In fact, England's grand reopening was greeted on Monday with caution and concern with most people planning to continue wearing masks as the Delta variant pushes much higher rates. Officials said they expect a peak of hospital admissions of about 1,000 patients a day in the current wave, well below the level that saw almost 40,000 patients being treated in hospitals in the last wave.

There are no more restrictions on social gatherings, masks are no longer a legal requirement, and nightclubs opened for the first time since March 2020.

Vaccinated people can travel to dozens more countries without having to isolate on their return, but not France, after it was struck off the list in a last-minute change on Friday.

Ministers are urging caution as they press ahead with the controversial unlocking despite infection rates climbing to all-time highs in about one in six areas of England, including almost all local authority areas in north-east England, close to a half in south-west England and nearly a third in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the success of Britain's vaccination programme made it possible to press ahead but that people should act responsibly.

“We must not be complacent or take the freedoms of today for granted,” he said.

“As we move away from government diktat, we enter a new stage, a new phase, where our response to the virus is with an emphasis on personal responsibility and corporate responsibility.”

Mr Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak were identified as contacts of Mr Javid by the National Health Service app which is forcing hundreds of thousands of people into isolation in a wave of alerts nicknamed the “pingdemic".

The controversy overshadowed Monday's lifting of restrictions, with Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, accusing the government of presiding over “chaos, confusion and cronyism".

“With family events cancelled, businesses having to close, and workers going without pay, Johnson and Sunak's attempts to dodge isolation were crass and they were insensitive,” Mr Starmer said.

Mr Starmer said lifting all restrictions was reckless at a time when the Delta variant was out of control.

“Johnson's recklessness risks plunging us back into restrictions again,” he said. “Freedom Day is just the latest in a long list of slogans not backed up by policy.”

The government acknowledges that virus cases will continue to rise but says the vaccination programme has substantially weakened the link between infection, the need for hospital treatment and death.

Ministers are continuing to urge the use of masks in crowded places such as train carriages, even as the legal mandate is lifted, and are telling people not to delete the NHS app to avoid isolation.

All positive cases will still be legally required to isolate. Isolation for their close contacts will be eased on August 16, after which children and fully vaccinated people will become exempt.

Border controls will be maintained, including quarantine for all those travelling from a red list country and for unvaccinated people coming back from amber list countries.

Airlines including British Airways and Ryanair fell on the stock market on Monday amid concerns that new restrictions would hinder the industry’s rebound.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, said on Monday that he would turn off the NHS app because it was no longer necessary when most people are vaccinated.

“I would switch off the app, I don’t think it has any effect any more,” he told Sky News. “We are going to have to learn to live with Covid.”

Partygoers in London flocked to midnight events early on Monday to mark the return of clubs after the hospitality and entertainment industry was badly hit by the pandemic.

A group of anti-lockdown protesters turned out for a rally near the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday, with some chanting “freedom” and holding up anti-vaccination messages.

Prince Charles kicked off a three-day tour of the south west of England, appearing without a mask when speaking with choristers at Exeter Cathedral.

But a survey carried out by the Office of National Statistics suggests most people are planning to play it safe, with 64 per cent saying they will cover their faces in shops and on public transport.

More than half of those who were surveyed between July 7 and 11 said they were worried about plans to remove legal restrictions.

The lifting of restrictions was delayed by four weeks from June 21 to allow more people to be fully vaccinated.

Vaccines could soon be rolled out to children as health chiefs prepare to recommend shots for youngsters who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.

Data from Public Health England suggests that one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 80 per cent effective at protecting against the need for hospital treatment with the Delta variant.

That increases to 96 per cent after two doses.

Updated: July 20th 2021, 7:46 AM
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