On Monday, Boris Johnson placed English citizens at the center of an experiment that will give some indication of how well a highly populated country with surging cases of Covid-19 copes when lockdown restrictions are lifted.
In Johnson’s favor, most of the UK’s adult population is now double vaccinated. However, while those vaccinations have cut the numbers of people suffering from severe illness and succumbing to the disease after more than 128,000 deaths, the number of cases is rising. There is also scant evidence that vaccines prevent the worst effects of long Covid in those who become infected.
Despite Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – the other, less populous, nations of the UK – also being highly vaccinated, it is only England that is taking this leap on Monday.
Almost all of the remaining coronavirus-related restrictions in England had been lifted as of Monday. Mandatory mask-wearing is gone, limits on the numbers of people who can mix indoor or outdoor have been ended, social distancing will be limited to people who have tested positive for the virus and airports, and venues like nightclubs and sports stadiums are free to open at full capacity.
As midnight struck on Monday, thousands across England flocked to nightclubs for the first time since they closed back in March 2020. As it’s no longer a legal requirement to prove one’s Covid-19 status before entering such venues, the nation now waits to learn whether the end of restrictions will plunges the nation into an unprecedented wave of infection.
If someone is pinged by the NHS coronavirus track-and-trace app, they will still need to self-isolate until August 16, at which point double-vaccinated people will be free to carry on as normal.
As cases continue to rise rapidly in England, the number of people told by the app to self-isolate is ballooning. In the week to July 7, 520,000 people received the alert, sparking worries about the program’s impact on the economy.
Even Johnson himself wasn’t spared by the track-and-trace scheme. The Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were alerted after coming into contact with the Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.
Downing Street initially announced that instead of self-isolating, the two would take part in a “daily contact-testing pilot,” a scheme that is unavailable to the general public. However, just hours later and following public outrage, officials made a U-turn on the decision and said the two would self-isolate after all.
It’s not the first gamble the PM has taken during the pandemic: He ended a lockdown on December 2 having pledged people a normal Christmas, a promise he would ultimately break when he was forced to reimpose restrictions. During the summer of 2020, the government actively encouraged a completely unvaccinated public to get back into pubs and restaurants, going so far as offering financial incentives to do so. And he opted to go it alone and not join European partners in procuring vaccines, a decision that initially looked set to pay off as the UK raced ahead of its neighbors in jabbing people.
Johnson has defended his latest decision on the grounds that the increase in cases was “predicted.” Where in the past such data would lead a government to “normally be locking down further,” he said earlier this month, the “continuing effectiveness of the vaccine roll-out” means he is confident English people can be given their long-awaited “freedom day” on July 19.
Johnson admitted that this would mean reconciling “ourselves sadly to more deaths from Covid.” But, he added, “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?”
What could possibly go wrong?
The main beneficiary of restrictions easing will be without question the hospitality industry, a major sector in the British economy. While most hospitality venues are chomping at the bit to return to work and making money, the dropping of restrictions isn’t without complications.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive at UK Hospitality, explained that many venues will impose restrictions on themselves in order to avoid the practical problems caused by the virus.
She explained that “pings on the (NHS coronavirus) app and then self-isolation” required as a result is the biggest challenge many of these businesses will face, as it will exacerbate “some of the existing labor shortages that are present in the market.”
Some venues will only open for certain days of the week or hours in the day, which will “have an impact on their ability to recover,” Nicholls added. Frustrating, given that now is the “first time in 17 to 18 months they’ll be able to break even.”
Further to that, these sorts of businesses will need to assure customers that their venues are safe by keeping measures like screens between tables, maintaining social distancing and possibly sticking to table service, which affects profits.
Inevitably, the return to something resembling normal in hospitality will lead to a greater surge in cases, which naturally carries its own risks.
“Unfortunately, the hospitality industry relies on people interacting and meeting and that is going to drive up infection rates,” says Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.
The consequences of a surge in the virus are where things could get sticky. Modeling by Imperial College London predicts that lifting all restrictions could lead to “a significant third wave of hospitalizations and deaths.” While the existing covid vaccines are very effective, they are not 100%. Some people may get ill despite being fully vaccinated.
Clarke explains that “filling hospitals with people who are ill enough to be in hospital but not ill enough to end up in intensive care” will put a huge strain on the NHS. And, he grimly adds, “that looks like what’s going to happen.” Any additional strain on the NHS will be unwelcome news to the millions of people who are awaiting treatment for non-Covid illness. The waiting list is currently at a record high.
Potentially more damaging, Clarke says is that “with every single infection of every single person, the likelihood of a mutation increases.” While he doesn’t think that means we will immediately see a variant that is completely resistant to vaccines, he believes “what we’ll see is a progressive blunting of its effectiveness.”
There is also limited data available on whether the vaccines offer protection against long Covid. The Office for National Statistics says about 1 million people are currently suffering from the condition in the UK. Many have been experiencing symptoms like fatigue and brain fog for months.
A vaccine-resistant variant would blow a huge hole in Johnson’s greatest success story of the whole pandemic: a speedy rollout of the magic bullet that stops the disease.
The UK has also experienced a huge mental health crisis during the pandemic. Yet, rather than those issues disappearing as a result of restrictions lifting, there is a chance that it could drive further divisions between the public and cause more anxiety and trauma for people who might already be vulnerable.
“Some people will carry on, will continue to wear masks and to distance and they might perceive others as selfish for not doing so; those who don’t do so might see others as overanxious,” says John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex.
“Solidarity is good for us, social support is good for us and those around us. It will be a source of distress for a lot of people to have that level of conflict,” he adds.
If this goes badly, there is a real chance it could backfire for Johnson.
“The public has consistently erred on the side of caution and the rules that the government has introduced are often viewed as not going far enough and being introduced too late,” says Joe Twyman, director of public opinion consultancy Deltapoll.
He believes that if a surge in cases and forced self-isolation leads to families canceling holidays and their summers being ruined, it could harm Johnson’s popularity.
“If the situation gets worse, it may damage the government’s position, because perception of how the government is dealing with the pandemic is correlated so closely to their support.”
The worst-case scenario for Johnson might be, Twyman says, if things “go south,” facing whether to “front it out or put in new measures.”
The latter could be a catastrophic U-turn for Johnson, who said that his plan to take his nation out of lockdown was “cautious but irreversible.”
Johnson’s pandemic has been a real mixed bag. Presiding over one of the developed world’s highest death rates, a complete meltdown in testing, and complicated and confusing public messaging, he has been rescued only by a speedy vaccine rollout.
Now is the moment he finds out if his great vaccine victory really was the saving grace it appeared not so long ago. If it’s not, he has to make a very difficult choice: stick to his line of accepting his own people dying, or reverse on a stone cold promise to a nation that has become divided and disillusioned. And should that happen, he might wonder whether taking this gamble when the pandemic is far from over was that good an idea after all.