As is often the case in British politics, the country is deeply divided – this time around whether the Government should remove England’s Coronavirus restrictions on July 19. For some, this is the right call; they want normality back, and may even feel that the delay to “Freedom Day”, as it is called, was a mistake. Others fear that losing restrictions will lead to a spike in cases.
They are under no illusions that this is likely to happen. Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, has told parliament: “It’s important that we’re straight with the British people: cases of COVID-19 are rising and they will continue to rise significantly. We can reasonably expect that by the 19th of July, the number of daily cases will be far higher than today”. The number expected is 100,000 per day by August.
Professor Neil Ferguson, who has played a large part in the Government’s Coronavirus modelling, has estimated that the figure could be higher than that – with around 200,000 daily cases, leading to 200 deaths per day. The last January peak saw the UK register almost 70,000 cases and 1,325 deaths in a day, so it is no wonder that people have concerns about July 19.
The media has decided to frame the date as the “Big Bang reopening” – and others have made dire forecasts about what lies ahead, with over 100 scientists saying that the Government’s strategy – to tolerate high levels of Covid infection – is “unethical and illogical”. Keir Starmer has warned that we’re in for a “summer of chaos” and that “lifting all protections at once is reckless”.
But the Government also has the voice of business to contend with. It was interesting to note that SAGE reportedly wanted to keep face masks, but ministers decided to ditch them after analyses suggested compulsory masks could lead to the events and hospitality industries losing more than £4 billion in lost revenues.
Other concerns have been raised, too; some companies are struggling with self-isolation rules, which mean people have to stay in for 10 days if they’ve come into contact with someone who has Covid. This rule will be phased out on August 16, when those who are double jabbed or under 18 won’t have to self-isolate, but it’s currently causing huge disruption for shops, bars and other businesses.
Overall the Government is trying very hard to balance the concerns of those on both sides of the lockdown debate, which are noisily battling for ministers to change course. Boris Johnson was right in his Monday press conference to talk about the balance of risks, as there will never be a perfect time to reopen, nor way to please everyone.
What’s been helpful at this time is Javid’s appointment as Health Secretary, as he is refreshingly frank about the reality of reopening. He has said that no date for lifting restrictions would come with “zero risk” and “we have to learn to live with” Covid-19. The next few weeks are going to be testing for the Government as anti- and pro-lockdown groups call to have their demands met. But more of this firm and realistic approach will help reopenings go ahead.