The British government says it’s time to try to return to normal. Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined plans on Monday to end pretty much all social and economic restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic in two weeks. Instead of laws mandating behavior, Johnson said, it will now be a question of “personal responsibility” because Britain will have to “learn to live with this virus.” Essentially, England will start treating COVID-19 like the seasonal flu. The changes won’t apply to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland that are in charge of making their own decisions regarding health policy.
The shift comes at a time when new cases of the virus are rising due to the highly transmissible delta variant and Johnson acknowledged that the lifting the restrictions will likely lead to even more cases. But he said it was the right time. “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 was sure to emphasize the pandemic is far from over. “We must reconcile ourselves, sadly, to more deaths from COVID,” he said. But assuming nothing drastic happens in the next few days, the government will confirm on July 12 that the vast majority of restrictions will end July 19. As of that time masks won’t be required although some businesses and transportation could still require them. All social distancing rules will be nixed, meaning night clubs will be able to reopen after 16 months and customers won’t have to provide their contact details to go into a bar or restaurant. The government will also stop pushing for remote work whenever possible, meaning employers can call all their workers back to their offices.
Johnson cautioned that restrictions could make a comeback. “Obviously, if we do find another variant that doesn’t respond to the vaccines, if, heaven forbid, some really awful new bugs should appear, then clearly we will have to take whatever steps we need to do to protect the public,” he said. For now, even though COVID-19 cases have been rising, public health data shows vaccines are highly effective to prevent severe illness and hospitalization. As of Monday, 86 percent of adults had received at least one dose of the vaccine with 64 percent having receiving two doses.
Europe, and much of the world, will be keeping a close eye to what happens in Britain and whether it will turn out to be a model that others should follow. “The world is watching the U.K. to see what living with Covid and high vaccine uptake looks like,” Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh, tells the New York Times. “The next few weeks will reveal if they’ve gambled correctly, or we end up having another wave of high hospitalizations.”
Many were quick to criticize the decision, particularly the move to nix laws requiring face masks. Some mayors in hard-hit areas vowed that they would continue to require masks in public transportation. And some scientists blasted the plans, with one calling it a “recipe for disaster” because it leaves too much to chance. “I find that for a government to abdicate itself from responsibility in terms of guiding people, I think that’s just wrong,” Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist and associate professor at the University of Leeds school of medicine tells the Guardian. “Because even if the vast majority of people are sensible as they suggest … it only takes a minority to undo that altruism, because masks prevent us from spreading the virus primarily.”