The world looks on as England rolls the dice with its reopening gamble

High number of close contacts still having to self-isolate after nearly all restrictions lifted

It was supposed to be freedom day, when England would plunge back into normal life after almost all legal coronavirus restrictions were lifted. But Monday saw prime minister Boris Johnson holed up in his country retreat at Chequers, self-isolating as a close contact of health secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for coronavirus last weekend.

By Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer was also self-isolating after one of his children became infected with the virus. And by Friday, the government was introducing emergency measures to secure the food supply as staff shortages left some supermarket shelves empty.

The world is watching England's experiment (which has not yet been followed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) to see if high levels of vaccination can make it safe to open up society after 18 months of restrictions. More than two out of three people in Britain are fully vaccinated and almost everyone in the older age groups has had two jabs.

The rise in infections has seen an explosion in the numbers of people told to self-isolate as close contacts, with more than 600,000 instructed to do so last week

But with infections running at about 50,000 a day, the fully vaccinated like Javid are falling ill with the virus along with young people who have yet to receive a vaccine.


Johnson has justified the reopening, which removes all social distancing rules and the requirement to wear a face mask, on the basis that it is better to have an "exit wave" of infections now than later. His scientific advisers agree that it is preferable to see a spike in infections during the school holidays rather than in the autumn, when pressure on the National Health Service (NHS) is greater.

Other experts disagree; 1,200 of them wrote to the Lancet earlier this month warning that it was “dangerous and premature” to lift all restrictions now.

“The link between infection and death might have been weakened, but it has not been broken, and infection can still cause substantial morbidity in both acute and long-term illness,” they said.

They said it was both unethical and illogical to pursue a policy which would allow hundreds of thousands of people to become infected and that risked the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants of the virus.

“This would place all at risk, including those already vaccinated, within the UK and globally. While vaccines can be updated, this requires time and resources, leaving many exposed in the interim. Spread of potentially more transmissible escape variants would disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in our country and other countries with poor access to vaccines,” they said.

The rise in infections has seen an explosion in the numbers of people told to self-isolate as close contacts, with more than 600,000 instructed to do so last week. Some of those who are self-isolating are legally obliged to do so after being identified by name as close contacts of an infected person and contacted directly by NHS Test & Trace.

But many more have been pinged by the NHS Covid app, which uses Bluetooth technology to alert anyone who was within 1.5m of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. The system is anonymous and entirely voluntary, so there is no legal obligation to follow the app’s instruction to self-isolate.

The “pingdemic” has created staff shortages across the country and the government this week introduced exemptions for workers in critical sectors to allow them to take daily tests rather than self-isolating. But ministers insist that the app is an important tool in its effort to keep infections under control over the next few weeks and to ensure that the number of cases does not overwhelm the health service.

While many continue to use the app, YouGov found this week that one in 10 people had deleted it and a further one in five were considering doing so. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has generally supported coronavirus restrictions, called this week for the fully vaccinated to be exempt from having to self-isolate if they test negative.

The British government is watching Ireland's decision to require coronavirus certification for access to indoor hospitality

“Otherwise we risk losing social consent for this very important weapon against the virus,” he said.

Johnson angered Conservative backbenchers this week by announcing that, from September, nobody would be allowed to enter a nightclub without showing proof that they were fully vaccinated. He refused to rule out extending the policy to pubs and other venues, raising the prospect of a vaccine passport for use in many public settings.

Labour has said it will oppose any system of certification which does not include the option of taking a test rather than offering proof of vaccination. But Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe who is one of the most outspoken critics of coronavirus restrictions, says that would be unacceptable too.

“The trouble is, even if you allow the alternatives of either vaccine or testing or antibodies, you still end up creating a divisive two-tier society with discrimination because some people can just go about their business by waving their phone but other people have to screw around getting tested twice a week to get permission from the government to live their life,” he tells The Irish Times.

“The vaccines are there and are working and take-up in the UK is fantastically high. And in that context, I really do think we’ve reduced the risk of Covid to broadly similar levels to flu. We don’t introduce this kind of dramatic encroachment on our relationship between the citizen and the state for flu. And I just don’t see why we should do it for Covid in the context of the vaccines.”

Baker is right that vaccine take-up in Britain is high but it is lower in younger age groups than older ones. Although everyone over 18 has been offered a first vaccine dose, 35 per cent of those between 18 and 30 have yet to take it up.

Johnson made his announcement about vaccine passports after French president Emmanuel Macron’s decision to require them in most public settings saw a surge in vaccinations. The British government is also watching Ireland’s decision to require coronavirus certification for access to indoor hospitality.

Daily infection numbers appear to have stabilised this week but they are expected to rise as the impact of removing restrictions feeds through in the coming weeks. Although hospitalisations are running at only about 1,000 a day and deaths at a few dozen, much lower than when infections were at a similar level before mass vaccination, a surge in case numbers could see hundreds of people dying every day.

Baker believes it is essential that ministers do not waver from their commitment to open up society if daily deaths move into the hundreds.

“I think they must hold their nerve. And part of this is we’ve lost all context around these deaths ... I think we’ve almost completely forgotten the number of deaths you get every day from dementia and stroke and heart attack and cancer,” he says.

“We’ve ended up talking about 100 deaths today from Covid without any recognition that actually hundreds of people do die every day normally. And the other bit of context that’s really important is now that the vaccines have been rolled out to this extent, over 90 per cent of adults in the UK have got antibodies. It’s as good as it’s going to get. The people who are going to get seriously ill from this disease are going to get seriously ill.”

If Johnson's gamble comes off, England will achieve something like hybrid immunity by the end of the summer and venues will be able to remain open at full capacity. Its neighbours, including Ireland, will be watching closely for lessons that can be learned from the English experience but also for any dangers the surge in infections pose for their own citizens.

Baker is confident that his government’s strategy will succeed but he fears that restrictions could return later this year in response to pressure on the NHS.

“I am optimistic that we are going to get back to something much more like a normal life. But I think it’s all at stake in the next few months. I think if we get to September, October and the government cannot resist the temptation to use our freedom as a tool of NHS capacity management, then we will end up transforming our society for the worse,” he says.

“And if we give in this winter, then forever, for the rest of our lives, will be facing calls to restrict our liberties to manage NHS capacity every single winter. And that means many things which make our lives worth living will disappear.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times