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UK PM Boris Johnson pleads for caution as 'Freedom Day' arrives in England

The British government on Monday (Jul 19) lifted pandemic restrictions on daily life in England, scrapping all social distancing in a step slammed by some as a dangerous leap into the unknown.

UK PM Boris Johnson pleads for caution as 'Freedom Day' arrives in England

People, some wearing protective face masks, walk over Westminster Bridge, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in London, Britain, on Jul 4, 2021. (Photo: Reuters/Henry Nicholls)

LONDON: The British government on Monday (Jul 19) lifted pandemic restrictions on daily life in England, scrapping all social distancing in a step slammed by some as a dangerous leap into the unknown.

On what local media have dubbed "Freedom Day", Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to lift regulations in favour of restarting an economy damaged by a series of on-off lockdowns since March 2020 marks a new chapter in the global response to the coronavirus.

From midnight local time (7am, Singapore time), nightclubs were able to reopen and other indoor venues allowed to run at full capacity, while legal mandates covering the wearing of masks and working from home were scrapped.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson - who is self-isolating after his health minister was infected - urged the public to remain prudent and for any laggards to join the two-thirds of UK adults who are now fully vaccinated.

He defended the reopening - dubbed "Freedom Day" by some media -- despite scientists' grave misgivings after daily infection rates in Britain topped 50,000, behind only Indonesia and Brazil.

"If we don't do it now, then we'll be opening up in the autumn, the winter months, when the virus has the advantage of the cold weather," the prime minister said in a video message.

This week's start of summer school holidays offered a "precious firebreak", he said.

"If we don't do it now, we've got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?"

Indoor venues like pubs will be able to open at full capacity. (Photo: AFP/Niklas HALLE'N)

If vaccines continue to prove effective in reducing severe illness and deaths even while infections reach record levels, Johnson's decision could inform other highly vaccinated countries' approach to returning to normal.

But the strategy comes with risks - most notably that a variant capable of resisting vaccines could emerge, or that the caseload could grow so severe that the economy grinds to a halt. Given that, Johnson has urged the public to take a cautious approach to the reopening.

"This is the right moment but we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there."

READ: UK government in COVID-19 confusion ahead of 'freedom day'

Britain has the seventh highest death toll in the world, 128,708, and is forecast to soon have more new infections each day than it did at the height of a second wave of the virus earlier this year. On Sunday there were 48,161 new cases.

But, outstripping European peers, 87 per cent of Britain's adult population has had one vaccination dose, and more than 68 per cent have had the two doses which provide even more protection. Daily deaths, currently at around 40 per day, are just a fraction of a peak of above 1,800 seen in January.

Johnson sets COVID-19 restrictions for England, with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland making their own policy.

Two-thirds of British adults have now received two coronavirus shots. (Photo: AFP/Tolga Akmen)

The aim is to speed up Britain's economic recovery after it suffered one of the biggest hits from the pandemic among advanced economies last year.

But that ambition could be thwarted, with the tens of thousands of new infections every day forcing hundreds of thousand of workers to self-isolate: not just people who are infected but people they have been in close contact with.

Businesses have been forced to close and train services cancelled due to staff shortages.

READ: In U-turn, UK PM Boris Johnson to quarantine after COVID-19 contact

READ: UK health minister Javid tests positive for COVID-19

DAMAGING EPISODE

The issue hit close to home this weekend: Johnson and finance minister Rishi Sunak are among those self-isolating after health minister Sajid Javid tested positive for the virus on Saturday. A plan for Johnson and Sunak to dodge the 10-day quarantine requirement was abandoned on Sunday after a public outcry.

That was the latest in a series of episodes that have damaged public trust in the government's handling of the pandemic.

But the success of the vaccine roll-out has helped keep the Conservative prime minister afloat politically.

Nevertheless, the government's own chief medical adviser has warned the crisis could return again surprisingly quickly if case numbers spiral. Johnson himself has highlighted the risk of new variants and urged citizens to complete the vaccine programme.

"Above all, please, please, please, when you're asked to get that second jab ... please come forward and do it," Johnson said.

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Source: AGENCIES

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