England gears up to reopen despite skyrocketing Covid cases

England gears up to reopen despite skyrocketing Covid cases

Almost all lockdown restrictions are expected to end in England on Monday, amid an increase in Covid-19 cases and political hubbub over whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson should self-isolate.

Although UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has warned of potential ‘problems’, face masks will no longer be required from what has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’ by some sections of the media.

Nightclubs and sporting events will also be free to operate at full capacity in England and the government will no longer advise people to work from home.

In other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – decentralized governments are taking more cautious steps and will not fully reopen.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson kisses Health Secretary Sajid in December. Javid recently tested positive for Covid-19.TOBY MELVILLE / Reuters

It comes after Johnson made a political U-turn and his 10 Downing St. office said he would spend 10 days in self-isolation after coming into contact with a confirmed coronavirus case – reversing an earlier announcement according to which he would not have to quarantine.

The Prime Minister and Treasury Chief Rishi Sunak were both alerted overnight by the UK telephone test and traceability app. Johnson had a meeting on Friday with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday. Javid, who has been fully vaccinated, said he was showing mild symptoms.

Johnson’s office initially said the Prime Minister and Sunak would instead take a daily coronavirus test as part of an alternative system being piloted at certain workplaces, including government offices.

Less than three hours later, after an outcry over apparent special treatment for politicians, Downing St. said Johnson would go into self-isolation at Checkers, the Prime Minister’s country residence. He said Sunak will self-isolate as well.

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Britain recorded 54,674 new cases of Covid-19 on Saturday – its highest daily number since January. However, deaths from the disease remained relatively low. More than 128,000 people across the UK have died from the disease, the highest death toll in Europe.

About 67.8% of adults, or just over half of the total population, received two doses of the vaccine.

Despite repeated assurances from the government about the vaccine rollout, medical experts have warned that “Freedom Day” could pose a threat to the rest of the world.

More than 1,200 scientists backed a letter in the British medical journal The Lancet, criticizing the government’s decision while warning that the strategy could allow the development of vaccine-resistant variants.

Whitty, also warned that the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 could reach “quite frightening” levels.

“I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could be in trouble again surprisingly quickly,” he said during a webinar hosted by the Science Museum on Thursday.

Families representing many of those who have died from Covid-19 in Britain have also criticized the government’s plan.

“The overwhelming scientific consensus is that lifting the restrictions on Monday will be disastrous, and bereaved families know firsthand how tragic the consequences of too early unlocking can be,” Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

“There is a real fear that once again government thinking will be guided by what is popular rather than the interests of the country,” he added.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed.