“Freedom Day” arrived in England on Monday with its chief architect, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, confined in quarantine, millions of Britons facing the same prospect and untold people more anxious about the risks of liberation.
Such were the incongruities on the long-awaited day when the government lifted all but a few remaining coronavirus restrictions — a day when the virus infected 39,950 people and swept up tens of thousands more who were notified by the National Health Service’s cellphone app after they were in contact with an infected person.
Johnson defended the decision to reopen from his country residence, Chequers, where he has been in self-isolation since Sunday after the NHS notified, or “pinged,” him because he had come into contact with his health secretary, Sajid Javid, who said Saturday he had mild symptoms of COVID-19.
“If we don’t open up now, then we face a risk of even tougher conditions in the coming months when the virus has a natural advantage,” Johnson said in a news conference, his voice somewhat muffled and image slightly blurry on a video feed. “We have to ask ourselves the question, ‘If not now, when?’”
“It is right to proceed cautiously in the way we are,” he added. “It is also right to recognize that this pandemic is far from over.”
Johnson’s hedged tone captured the stark change in mood since the prime minister first announced, then rolled back, the date for lifting most restrictions. British newspapers quickly called Monday “Freedom Day,” celebrating it as a symbolic end to the country’s 16-month ordeal with the pandemic.
But as new cases have soared and hospital admissions have begun to follow, the plan to throw open the economy instead looks like a likely recipe for a massive third wave — a surge of infections that Johnson appears to view as inevitable and worth getting over with during the summer, when the warmer weather and school vacations reduce key chains of transmission.
The government’s decision amounts to a breathtaking gamble that a country with fairly widely deployed vaccines in its adult population can learn to live with the coronavirus. Much will depend on the resilience of the vaccines and the capacity of the nation’s health care system to handle those who do become sick.
“The government is basically saying, ‘We’ve done all we can. Now it’s up to you,’” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “They’ve become the first country to surrender.”
Leaving some restrictions in place a while longer, Sridhar argued, would allow vaccines to be rolled out further and hospitals to develop better treatments.
“They’re devaluing time,” she said.
Under the new rules, pubs and restaurants can operate at full capacity and nightclubs are allowed to reopen. Curbs on the number of people who can meet indoors, generally limited to six, were also lifted. The legal requirement to wear face masks was dropped, though the government is urging people to keep wearing them on public transportation. (They remain compulsory on subways and buses in London.)
The U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their highest-level travel warnings Monday for the United Kingdom, citing high levels of the virus.
Johnson initially hoped to avoid self-isolating by taking part in a program that would have allowed him to continue working at the office if he were tested daily. But after being accused of not abiding by the rules, he reversed course and said he would self-isolate like everyone else.
The prime minister warned young people that to be admitted to nightclubs and other crowded places, they would likely have to show proof that they had been fully vaccinated. He said the flood of people being ordered to isolate themselves was an unavoidable side effect of a reopening. And he declined to rule out reimposing restrictions, as the Netherlands recently did, if hospitalizations soar catastrophically.
Nearly 70% of adults in the United Kingdom have gotten both doses of a vaccine. But that still leaves a large pool of unvaccinated people, particularly younger people, through which the highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading rapidly. While these people are less likely to get seriously ill, they can transmit the virus to unvaccinated older people who remain vulnerable.
Adding to the uncertainty, the government said it would offer vaccines to children ages 12-18 only if they have underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus. Some scientists questioned the decision, saying that the long-term effects of COVID-19 on children were unclear and that leaving them unvaccinated could turbocharge infections when schools start next month.
In London, where the lifting of restrictions coincided with the balmiest weather of the summer, sunbathers near Liverpool Station voiced a mixture of relief and anxiety as the country ventured into uncharted territory.
“I don’t think it’s the right time, but we can’t stop our life for a long time,” said Silvia Andonova, a dental nurse, 43. “There will never be a right time.”
She said that she intended to continue wearing masks on public transportation and in crowded places but that the guidance was not clear enough.
“The government put it in a way that is confusing,” she said. “What should I do?”
After long months of restrictions, there were signs of a more buoyant mood, with many restaurants scrawling “Happy Freedom Day” on their signs. Still, many people said they felt conflicted about the government’s decision to ease restrictions.
“It doesn’t matter what the politicians say, I’ll be wearing my face covering on the transport,” said Saj Sangha, an operations assistant for a law firm. Still, Sangha, 52, said he was looking forward to ordering a beer at a pub without the inconvenience of having to reserve a table in advance.
Not all young people are convinced that returning to nightclubs is safe.
“The deaths are a bit less with the vaccination, but the people still have corona — we still have high numbers,” said Simone Papi, 24, a chef.
In the northern city of Bradford, Kasim Khan, 26, lined up to get his first vaccine shot.
“I’m feeling hopeful,” Khan said. “I’m hoping to travel to where my family is from, in Pakistan,” he said, adding that it could be some time before that could happen, as the government currently requires travelers from Pakistan to quarantine in hotels after they arrive in Britain.
Kirsty Mcguire, 33, another Bradford resident, said she planned to keep taking some precautions, like wearing a face mask, regardless of the new freedom.
“It’s out of respect for the elderly, and I’ve got kids,” Mcguire said, “I’m terrified of anything happening to them, so I’m hoping that people still sort of stick to what they’ve been doing already.”