British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday set out his plans to end social and economic Covid-19 restrictions in England in two weeks, in a test of whether a rapid vaccine rollout offers enough protection from the highly contagious Delta variant.
Johnson confirmed the government aimed to end restrictive measures on July 19, with a final decision to be taken next week. He said the step would eliminate formal limits on social contact and mandates to wear face masks.
Unveiling a five-point plan for the final step of easing curbs, Johnson said: "We will move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions."
Under the plan, nightclubs will be allowed to reopen and there will be no limits on capacity of hospitality venues. Social-distancing guidelines will be scrapped.
The government will also stop instructing people to work from home if they can, leaving employers free to bring staff back to offices.
Britain has recorded more than 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Western Europe, and confirmed infections are rising due to the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Admitting that “this pandemic is far from over”, Johnson however said, “we must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from Covid.”
But the opening up of the economy was necessary, said Johnson. "We must be honest with ourselves that if we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal?" Johnson said at a news conference.
Johnson sets health policy for England, but not for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
Britain has suffered the seventh highest global death toll from Covid-19, and Johnson has been accused of being too slow to implement each of England's three lockdowns.
But the take-up of vaccines in Britain has been strong, with 86 percent of adults receiving a first dose and 64 percent receiving two doses as of Monday, according to government data.
Johnson also said that people under 40 would be invited for their second Covid shots from eight weeks after their first dose, rather than 12 weeks, bringing it into line with the policy for those over-40s.
'We’re not out of the woods'
Johnson's "learn to live with it" message will be welcomed by lockdown-sceptic lawmakers in Johnson’s governing Conservative Party, who say the economic and social damage of restrictions outweighs the public health benefits, and Britain’s populist press, which have dubbed July 19 “freedom day”.
But public health officials and scientists have urged caution, saying ditching masks and social distancing altogether could be dangerous. Psychologist Stephen Reicher, a member of the government’s scientific advisory committee, said “proportionate mitigations” against the spread of the virus should stay in place.
“I think we need very clear messaging and I think in certain spaces – crowded, badly ventilated spaces – masks are crucial mitigation,” he told the BBC.
The British government, which enforced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, has lifted restrictions for England in a series of steps that began with reopening schools in March. The fourth and final stage was delayed last month to provide time for more people to be vaccinated amid the rapid spread of the delta variant, which was first discovered in India.
Jonathan Ashworth, health spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, said the government should exercise more caution.
“We’re not out of the woods,” he said. "We want to see the lockdown end but we need lifesaving mitigation in place. We still need sick pay, local contact tracing, continued mask wearing, ventilation and support for children to prevent serious illness.”
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it made sense to ease restrictions in summer, when schools are closed, people spend more time outdoors and other respiratory infections are at a low level.
“The disease burden associated with a larger peak during the summer would likely be less than one during the winter,” said Hunter.
But Richard Tedder, a virologist at Imperial College London, said easing up while infections are still rampant “comes with the very real risk of facilitating the escape of variants which will be even more resistant to vaccines and potentially more infectious.
“Failing to recognise this is playing with fire,” he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)