For the third time since the coronavirus pandemic began, Boris Johnson’s big bang plan to lift almost all legal restrictions on July 19th has made England an outlier in Europe. He was slower to respond to the first wave of infections and Britain suffered more deaths than its neighbours but his boldness in rolling out vaccines put the country a step ahead of the rest.
His latest move comes as case numbers, driven by the Delta variant, are at their highest level in months and Johnson said on Monday they are likely to reach 50,000 a day within two weeks, almost twice today’s number. His calculation is that it is better to bring on the “exit wave” of infections by reopening society now rather than wait until the autumn when schools return and the weather drives more people indoors.
Downing Street insists it is not embracing a herd immunity strategy by letting the virus rip through the population of those too young to be vaccinated, who are also least likely to become ill because of it. But by removing all legal social distancing requirements at once, the spread of the virus will inevitably accelerate before it peaks.
The plan is popular among Conservative backbenchers, one of whom cried “Hallelujah!” when health secretary Sajid Javid announced the end of social distancing in a Commons statement. But a snap poll showed more than 70 per cent of the public wants face masks to remain mandatory and ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said they would not immediately follow England’s lead.
The speed of the planned reopening offers an opening to Labour, whose leader Keir Starmer described it as “reckless” as unions warned that removing the mask mandate put customer-facing workers at risk. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who were with Johnson for the announcement, said they would continue to wear masks in certain circumstances, including as a matter of “common courtesy” if someone else felt uncomfortable otherwise.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said he would consult the capital’s transport authority about whether to continue to require passengers on buses and Tube trains to wear a mask.
“My mask protects you, your mask protects me. The wearing of face coverings on public transport helps reduce the spread of Covid, and crucially gives Londoners confidence to travel – which is vital to our economic recovery,” he said.
Johnson also struck a modest note of caution, urging people not to be “demob happy” when nightclubs reopen and bars and restaurants return to full capacity. His MPs are cheering now but they will need strong nerves in the weeks ahead when cases surge even higher and the daily death count, currently in low double digits, begins to edge upwards to newsworthy levels.