Britain is now split between excitement and apprehension over the government move to lift the lockdown altogether later this month. July 19 is the set date: freedom day for some, frustration day for others.
Some of that divide has been showing already, at the football match between England and Germany, and now at Wimbledon. Tens of thousands have turned up to concentrate at one place, after packing closely into smaller groups on transport en route. In Scotland, thousands of Covid cases followed a football match. England may well see at the least a limited explosion of cases rising from already high levels.
The government sees that and is not worried. It has decided to consider Covid a sort of flu that the country must learn to live with. In that, it has been encouraged by widespread vaccination that has failed to stop a rise in cases but appears to have stopped a corresponding rise in serious cases.
To each their own
The number of hospital admissions and deaths is still “mercifully low”, new Health Secretary Sajid Javid says. And so Britain is being extracted out of its lockdown with the government taking spectator position. People are being advised to make their own decisions on wearing masks, or social distancing, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he will wear a mask at public places “as a courtesy”. The work-from-home advice is being dropped, and limits on meeting indoors lifted.
Johnson says cases are set to rise to about 50,000 a day towards the end of this month, and that “sadly” more Covid deaths are certain to which “we must reconcile ourselves”. He said, “If we can’t reopen in the next few weeks, when will we?”
Javid has called the end to the lockdown a measure to protect health. He suggests that the lockdown has led to a sharp rise in domestic abuse and mental health problems. On balance, the government has decided that more Covid cases and deaths may be necessary for better health for Britain.
Not everyone is bursting with joy in anticipation. And particularly not a number of scientists, whose warnings against these measures the government has chosen to disregard. It is far more usual for a government to order a lockdown than to end it in the face of rising cases.
Dr Chand Nagpaul, Chairman of the British Medical Association, has said it “makes no sense” to end mandatory wearing of masks in public places in the face of rising cases with the infectious Delta variant. He said, “We can’t understand why we would knowingly want people to become infected.” Britain was the slowest around the world in ordering the wearing of masks last year, and is now among the first out of it.
The reopening out of lockdown in some ways parallels a similar move in India – with the critical difference that India began to step out of lockdown after cases began to come down, not when they were rising. Britain is relying on vaccination to see it through. But despite the extensive vaccination, the number of hospital admissions has risen 50 per cent in a week. Britain has twice as many people on ventilators at present than it did a month back, despite the vaccination.
Israel had ended mandatory wearing of masks after double-jabbing its entire population but ordered them back on after cases rose despite the 100 per cent vaccination. Unlike England, Scotland is keeping the wearing of masks mandatory.
The UK government has made a fundamental policy shift: from healthcare rules dictated by the government to choices for individuals and organisations to make. But the government has dropped the earlier position of Sajid Javid that the changes ending the lockdown would be “irreversible”. The government recognises clearly that it may have to step in if matters get out of hand.
That seems more than likely at some stage, particularly closer to the winter months. Most scientists believe the virus will be back in new mutations past Delta. And the planned easing that will ease the spread of the virus will hit both people and the government. The UK government got it badly wrong in handling the first outbreak last year, and then again with its “eat out to help out" scheme that only went on to feed another wave. Many fear that the UK government is now making yet another blunder.