Skip to main content

People walk along a platform at King's Cross Station in London, July 12, 2021.HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cleared the way for the removal of all COVID-19 restrictions in England on July 19 despite a surge in infections that the government has acknowledged could reach 100,000 cases a day this summer.

“We’ve come to a stage in the pandemic when there is no easy answer and no obvious date for unlocking,” Mr. Johnson told a televised news conference on Monday. “What the scientists are saying is this is the right date, or as good as any other date, to do this. But it’s got to be taken seriously and we’ve got to go as slowly as we can given the constraints we’re under.”

His announcement means that, as of next Monday, nightclubs can reopen, pubs will no longer be restricted to table service and all limits on public gatherings will be removed. Face coverings will also no longer be mandatory and people won’t be advised to work from home. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which run their own health care systems, are expected to follow suit with similar easing.

“We’re trying to move toward personal responsibility, people thinking about others as well as about themselves,” Mr. Johnson said.

Britain has become a kind of litmus test for other governments that are struggling with how to return their countries to something close to normalcy even as the pandemic rages on.

For weeks, Mr. Johnson and other cabinet ministers have insisted that Britons needed to learn how to live with the virus. They took comfort in the country’s successful vaccination program, which has fully immunized just over 66 per cent of adults so far, with nearly 90 per cent of adults having received one shot of vaccine.

But a surge in cases of the Delta variant in recent weeks has left many public-health officials worried that any further easing of restrictions could put pressure on hospitals.

The number of daily COVID-19 cases has been rising roughly 30 per cent each week across Britain, and the total is now doubling every 11 days. On Monday, the country reported 34,471 new infections, the highest figure since February when Britain was coming out of the worst phase of the pandemic.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons on Monday that daily infections could reach 100,000 this summer, nearly twice as high as the peak of the outbreak in January. “The case numbers will get a lot worse before they get better,” Mr. Javid said.

Hospitalizations have been rising as well but at a much slower pace. Daily admissions totalled 563 on Monday, far below the 3,000 admissions that occurred every day in February. But Monday’s figure was still up 57 per cent from the previous week and the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has predicted that admissions could top 1,000 a day this summer. “Even if it is lower than previous peaks, the number of admissions may become challenging for the [National Health Service],” the group said.

Deaths have also been rising slowly – six on Monday – but the advisory group has estimated that the daily total could reach 100 by the end of August.

Mr. Johnson acknowledged on Monday that hospitalizations and deaths would increase as restrictions eased. However, he said it was better to move now instead of later in the summer or fall when cold weather would exacerbate the situation.

“If we held off until September, if we waited to go for the legal unlocking that we [are doing now], then we’d be doing it in a context of a great deal more risk from the weather,” he said. “It is absolutely vital that we proceed now with caution. And I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough. This pandemic is not over. This disease continues to carry risks for you and your family.”

Some public-health experts criticized the plans and said Mr. Johnson is taking a dangerous risk. The planned relaxations “amount to a dangerous, irresponsible and experimental gamble that poses a very real threat of unnecessary harm to the British public,” said Stephen Griffin, an associate professor in the school of medicine at the University of Leeds. “I am dumbfounded by the notion that public health can be left to individual choice when, in the case of infectious disease, it is, in fact, the epitome of collective responsibility.”

Others said some restrictions, including face mask rules, should remain in place for at least an additional few weeks so that more young people can be vaccinated.

“Now is the time to tighten restrictions – perhaps not to add new restrictions, but at the very least, to more rigorously enforce the existing ones,” said Peter English, a retired consultant in communicable disease control and immediate past chair of the British Medical Association’s public-health medicine committee. “The harms that relaxing restrictions will cause can, and have, been confidently predicted. When they arise, the blame for these harms can be squarely laid at the feet of the ministers responsible.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.