Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on at Jacksons Wharf Marina in Hartlepool following local elections, on May 7, 2021. (Image: Reuters/Lee Smith)
With coronavirus infections surging yet again, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday urged Britons to keep wearing face masks in crowded, indoor spaces even as he promised to unlock England’s economy next week and lift almost all virus-related restrictions.
Johnson’s admonition on masks, while not compulsory, represents the latest swerve from a government that delayed the imposition of several lockdowns and then promised the “irreversible” lifting of restrictions, culminating in what British tabloid newspapers called “freedom day.”
Having delayed that moment once, Johnson on Monday confirmed plans to proceed with the removal of most legal curbs in England on July 19, allowing pubs and restaurants to operate at full capacity and nightclubs to open their doors. Curbs on the number of people who can meet indoors, generally limited to six, will also be lifted.
Despite the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant, the government believes that Britain’s successful vaccination program has weakened the link between cases and hospital admissions. The government now argues that there is no better time to end lockdown restrictions than in the summer when the virus tends to spread more slowly and schools take a vacation break, eliminating one source of transmission.
Still, the landmark once hailed boldly as “freedom day” by libertarian lawmakers is now being given much more cautious billing by the government as Britain records around 30,000 cases a day, a number that the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said Monday could climb to 100,000 during the summer.
“Whether we like it or not, coronavirus is not going away,” Javid said in Parliament.
The government decision to recommend the continued use of face masks in crowded indoor spaces is a shift, in tone at least, from a week ago when Johnson outlined his thinking at a news conference.
When asked then whether he would wear a mask, he said, “it would depend on the circumstances,” before clarifying later that he would wear one on a crowded train.
On Monday, Johnson struck a decidedly cautious tone. “I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough,” he said at a news conference. “This pandemic is not over. This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday, 19 July to life as it was before COVID.”
Johnson added that the government strongly recommended that people wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces such as on public transportation.
The government plans to work with organizers of large indoor events to encourage the use of certification for those who have been vaccinated or recently tested.
Johnson said he wanted a gradual return to the workplace rather than a mass move back to offices next week. And Britain’s border restrictions would remain in place, including hotel quarantine for those arriving from countries deemed to be in the highest risk category.
Nonetheless, Johnson argued that delaying the full reopening of the economy would merely postpone any surge in infections to the fall, when schools return and colder weather gives the virus a natural advantage. So he wants to replace an era of government diktat with one of growing personal responsibility as people learn to live with the virus and use common sense to protect themselves.
Such an emphasis on personal responsibility over legal proscriptions has already driven decisions like opening up Wembley Stadium to more than 60,000 fans Sunday for the finals of the European soccer championship.
Under the rules, entrants had to show proof of a negative coronavirus test or full vaccination, which requires the second of two vaccine doses to be given at least 14 days before the game.
But lifting the remaining restrictions next week will inevitably create confusion among a British public that, according to opinion surveys, is cautious about a wholesale discarding of the rules.
Mike Tildesley, an expert in infectious disease modeling who sits on a government scientific advisory committee, told the BBC that the country was at a “tricky phase” and said “mixed messaging” from ministers over face masks was a concern.
“I think it’s actually quite confusing for people to know what the right thing to do is,” he said.
Some business lobby groups took the same view. “Business leaders aren’t public health experts and cannot be expected to know how best to operate when confusing and sometimes contradictory advice is coming from official sources,” said Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce.
“Without clear guidance there could be real uncertainty on how companies should operate from July 19 and what they should be doing to keep staff and customers safe,” she added.
Others contend that the government is pursuing an unspoken strategy of “herd immunity,” allowing the virus to circulate through the population until enough people develop antibodies to depress its spread.
Britain has built immunity through its widespread deployment of vaccines. Sixty-six percent of the adult population in the United Kingdom has received two doses of a vaccine providing good levels of protection. Soaring rates of infection among young people, who tend to suffer less seriously, could eventually provide elevated rates of immunity.
“The idea of living with COVID has been in the British government for a very long time,” David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government, said last week. “It’s the only way you can rationally explain what they’ve been doing.”
The trouble with this approach, King said, is that it leaves Britain with high viral content in its society, which makes it vulnerable to mutations that could create fast-spreading or more lethal variants. One of the first dangerous variants, known as alpha, originated in Kent, in southeastern England, and spread worldwide.
“Variants emerge in those parts of the world where there is a lot of viral content,” King said, pointing to India and the delta variant. “We join that gang by allowing a high viral content to stay in our population.”
The government denies it is pursuing, or has ever pursued, a herd immunity strategy. But while opponents of lockdown from the libertarian wing of Johnson’s Conservative Party welcomed the lifting, opposition politicians were more critical.
Jonathan Ashworth, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on health matters, accused the government of pursuing a “high-risk, indeed fatalist, approach” that would allow cases to climb. Caroline Lucas, a lawmaker from the Green Party, claimed the government was operating a “Darwinian strategy relying on immunity by national infection.”
The message on face masks on public transport, she said, had been “downgraded from being a clear legal requirement to be an optional personal choice.”
By Stephen Castle and Mark Landler
c.2021 The New York Times Company