During the long arc of the pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the British government have loved to deploy snappy slogans. The latest is “Hands, Face, Space.” Before that, “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives.” And quite a few more prior to that.
Now the emphasis is clearly turning away from government mandate to personal responsibility.
Ministers for the past few days have been repeating the line that the public must now “learn to live with the virus,” which does raise the question of what people have been doing for the last 16 months, through three national lockdowns and 128,000 deaths.
On Monday, the prime minister is expected to announce that the government will lift all — or almost all — social distancing and mask-wearing mandates on July 19.
Johnson will urge the people to “act responsibly” and “exercise judgment” and “carefully manage” their risks.
But the prime minister will also say that the decision of whether to socially distance will be mostly voluntary.
Ministers concede that infections will likely rise when mandates are eased, but the government hopes that the number of hospitalizations and deaths will be limited by the ongoing vaccination campaign, one of the most successful in the world. Some 45 million people have had a first vaccine dose in Britain — about 85 percent of the adult population — and another 33 million have had their second.
Johnson’s decision to fully open for commerce, travel and summer fun comes with risks. The prime minister has lifted lockdowns and eased measures in the past, only to see the virus come roaring back.
Britain may arguably be in the middle a third wave of infections now, with new cases soaring to 25,000 a day, twice the numbers seen in the much larger United States.
The rising cases, doubling every eight days, are driven by the delta variant, which was first detected in India. The new strain is now dominant in Britain and scientists estimate it may be 40 to 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant that was earlier predominant.
In sign of how widespread the new surge is, Kensington Palace on Monday said that Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, was now in isolation after last week coming into contact with someone who has subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus.
“Her Royal Highness is not experiencing any symptoms, but is following all relevant government guidelines and is self-isolating at home,” said the palace. Her last public event was a visit to Wimbledon on Friday.
Johnson’s move to make mask-wearing voluntary has been met with criticism by some scientists, who fear a surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
One researcher, Susan Michie, a psychologist at University College London, and a member of the government’s Sage committee of scientific advisers, tweeted: “Allowing community transmission to surge is like building new ‘variant factories’ at a very fast rate.”
Peter English, an expert in communicable disease and former editor of the journal Vaccines in Practice, told science reporters that “government ministers who have declared that they will not show consideration to vulnerable people by wearing a mask — and thereby encouraged others in this approach — have been hugely irresponsible, and shown a gross failure of leadership.”
The British Medical Association is urging the government to continue to advise the public to wear masks in public areas such as shops and public transport, and to stress the importance of good ventilation.
Britain now has a new health secretary, Sajid Javid, replacing Matt Hancock, who resigned in late June after a tabloid newspaper obtained footage of the married minister passionately kissing a top aide inside his office — violating the very social distancing rules he had written.
In contrast to Hancock’s more cautious approach, Javid is gung-ho to move forward and open the country fully. He acknowledged that some people will become sick and some will die, but said the pandemic is under control and it is time to move on.
“No date we choose comes with zero-risk for covid,” Javid told the House of Commons. “We cannot eliminate it, instead we have to learn to live with it.”
In a piece for the Mail on Sunday, Javid wrote that the months of restrictions have come at great cost: “Rules that we have had to put in place have caused a shocking rise in domestic violence and a terrible impact on so many people’s mental health.”
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