LONDON — England is set to move forward with its so-called Freedom Day on Monday, marking the end of legal lockdown curbs and coronavirus health restrictions, some of which have been in place since March 2020.
On July 19, the last remaining closed businesses, including nightclubs, will reopen, and wearing masks will no longer be a legal requirement in public places, although they will still be "expected and recommended" in crowded indoor areas. The government will no longer advise people to work from home.
For some, the day is a welcome milestone in the fight against the coronavirus, which has ravaged the region. The U.K. suffered from the highest death toll in Europe, with over 128,000 deaths. But for others, including some ICU doctors and scientists, there’s a fear that easing the remaining measures could backfire as cases of the Delta variant continue to rise.
On Friday, 36,800 new cases of the Delta variant were reported in Britain in the week of July 14, compared with 54,268 new cases reported the previous week. The total number of cases of the variant reported was 253,049, a 17 percent increase from last week.
Although the number of Delta variant infections decreased week over week, public health officials are still concerned about its spread. They warn that hospitals may see a surge in admissions as more social contact is allowed.
“I’m incredibly worried about it, alongside many of my colleagues in the medical profession,” National Health Service (NHS) doctor Amir Khan told current affairs TV show "Good Morning Britain" on Friday when asked about Freedom Day.
“We talk about the impact on the NHS. ... When a patient with COVID goes into intensive care, on average if they need ventilation they spend about 20 days in ICU, so that means that that bed can’t be used for anything else,” Khan said.
“So if you’re planning heart surgery — let's say if my mom had angina and she needed to go in for a coronary artery bypass graft, she may need ICU treatment afterwards, she can’t have her operation because those ICU beds are being used for such long periods of time,” he explained.
The U.K. government argues that its fast-moving vaccine rollout has allowed it to remove the remaining lockdown restrictions. It believes the fact that deaths and hospital admissions remain far lower than before, even though cases have risen sharply, is proof that the vaccines are saving lives and it is now safer to open up.
So far two-thirds of adults in Britain have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine. All adults are now eligible to receive their first dose in England.
"We think now is the right moment to proceed,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a press conference on Monday. “But it is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution, and I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough — this pandemic is not over.”
"To take these steps we must be cautious and must be vaccinated," Johnson said, adding that England will see "more hospitalizations and more deaths from COVID."
But many scientists in the U.K. outlined their disagreement with the government’s decision to move forward, arguing that not enough of the population has been vaccinated and criticizing the so-called exit wave — the wave of infections expected to follow the increase of social interaction.
Dr. Stephen Griffin, an associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, told Yahoo News that the decision to reopen on Monday is a “dangerous and irresponsible experiment.”
Griffin, who was one of 122 scientists to sign a scathing letter first published July 7 in the journal the Lancet criticizing the policy, added that “everybody who I know [in the field] recognizes that what they're about to do on Monday is going to cause us profound issues.”
“What is really very upsetting is this notion that we have to have this exit wave,” Griffin said. “We don't have to have an exit wave, because we don't have to open up in the way that we're doing.”
“We can be sensible about this; we know what works,” he explained. “But we also know what's going to encourage large amounts of spread, and that's encouraging people to gather in large numbers indoors without masks on, and that's what's going to happen on Monday.”
Other countries have rescinded orders that had lifted most of their restrictions. On Monday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte conceded that coronavirus restrictions had been removed in the Netherlands too soon and apologized after infections surged to their highest levels of the year. Nightclubs had opened for two weeks before being closed again in the country.
But some English people who have lived through the pandemic restrictions say they are not concerned about the risks and believe it’s time for the country to get back to normal.
“There’s never going to be the perfect time to reopen, but now a lot of people have been vaccinated, I don’t see why not,” Miles Smith, a high school teacher from London, told Yahoo News.
Smith, who was an avid clubgoer prior to the pandemic, said he can’t wait for the doors to open at midnight on Sunday.
“I’ll be the first in the queue. ... [After] the last 18 months, it’s what we all need,” he said. “I just want to be dancing with strangers again.”
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