It’s Now or Never for the UK Says Boris Johnson, as Freedom Day Is Announced
Tuesday, July 6, 2021
Johanna Ross is a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland.
On the day the National Health Service in Britain celebrated its 73rd birthday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose to announce an end to the biggest health crisis the organisation, and arguably the nation, has ever had to deal with.
But while the British PM said that lifting all Covid restrictions on 19th July was a question of ‘now or never’, scientific advisors were slightly more nuanced in their approach. Boris Johnson spoke of summer being the best time to open up the country; that face masks and social distancing would no longer be mandatory; that night clubs would open for the first time in 16 months, and that people could once again attend large gatherings. Yet brazen Boris was flanked on either side by his more cautious advisors, so obviously not wanting to get involved in the political decision-making, or to openly contradict the PM, but nevertheless repeating key aspects of the data which diametrically opposed what their boss was saying.
‘Cases are rising’ repeated Sir Patrick Vallace, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor; ‘hospitalisations are rising and quite steeply in some areas… we will still see increases in hospitalisation’. He said it is estimated that roughly 1 in 210 people in the UK are currently infected with Covid. To Johnson’s left, Chris Whitty was on the same wavelength as his colleague: ‘I would wear a mask under 3 situations and I would do so particularly at this point when the epidemic is significant and rising’. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, emphasised that the decision on whether to open up is about ‘balancing the risks’ and asked ‘we must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t open up our society in the next few weeks…when will we be able to return to normal?’
Chris Whitty, for his part, acknowledged the difficulty for the government in taking the decision and personally agreed that there was an advantage to opening up in the summer. He also said that he felt that any further delay to opening up would effectively be postponing further hospitalisations and deaths, not avoiding them altogether.
However, the epidemiologist advising the Scottish government, Professor Devi Sridhar, expressed concern about abandoning all Covid restrictions. She said that measures such as wearing face masks should be prolonged, as it was a small price to pay for reduced transmission. Sridhar had earlier criticised the new Health Minister Sajid Javid, who in an article in the Mail on Sunday, compared Covid to Flu, implying that it is a disease we will have to learn to live with. The scientist tweeted ‘New UK health minister saying COVID is like flu. Same position 18 months into the pandemic. We didn’t have to vaccinate the entire adult population against flu, or do mass community testing, or have lockdowns and hospitals full. I don’t understand this analogy.’
In agreement with this was Sir Keir Starmer, opposition leader, who said Johnson was ‘reckless’ to announce an opening up on 19th July and that basic measures such as social distancing and indoor ventilation should remain. But the Prime Minister maintains that the key point about opening up is to end government dictat regarding Covid restrictions, and hand over responsibility to the individual.
It does seem to be a case of Johnson being damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to a roadmap out of the pandemic. If he had decided to delay ‘Freedom Day’ further then he would have been heavily criticised by businesses, many of whom are on their last legs, if they have been lucky enough to survive the health crisis. Wedding organisers, night clubs and others in the entertainment industry will be desperate to open up on 19th July if they are to have any chance of remaining in business. In October last year, 42% of entrepreneurs said they had less than 6 months of cash reserves left. So it’s possible that many of these companies have already gone to the wall.
By announcing ‘Freedom Day’, Johnson has therefore given hope to business and a light at the end of the tunnel for the British economy. As is often the case with this PM, it is a gamble. A complete lifting of restrictions at a time when cases are rising, could backfire and cause another lockdown at a later stage. The Delta variant, which is responsible for so many of the current cases, is more transmissible than previous strains of the virus, so we could soon see cases skyrocketing as holidaymakers travel around the country this summer. It’s a risk Johnson is prepared to take, and although he may live to regret it, it’s unlikely to have any major political repercussions for him if he does. For if anything, Boris Johnson is a survivor.
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