England hails ‘freedom day’, but virus ramps up in Asia

Published July 20, 2021
On what has been dubbed “Freedom Day”, marking the end of coronavirus restrictions in England, some wearing masks people walk over London Bridge during the morning rush hour on July 19. — AP
On what has been dubbed “Freedom Day”, marking the end of coronavirus restrictions in England, some wearing masks people walk over London Bridge during the morning rush hour on July 19. — AP

LONDON: England lifted most pandemic restrictions on Monday despite surging infections and dire warnings from experts, as the Delta variant sweeps parts of Europe and Asia, where new cases are threatening to scupper the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.

As England celebrated so-called “freedom day”, Vietnam locked down much of its population, while Indonesia clocked daily record deaths and in France lawmakers were set to toughen vaccine to battle rising cases.

The highly transmissible Delta variant, first detected in India, is driving new outbreaks along with a relaxation of measures as countries seek to kickstart virus-battered economies.

In Britain, daily infections have climbed, averaging more than 50,000 since last week, with Delta taking hold in many areas.

But despite accusations against the UK government of recklessness, it lifted legal mandates on social distancing, wearing masks and working from home, urging personal responsibility instead.

Nightclubs in England reopened their floors to dancing at the stroke of midnight for the first time since March 2020, while sports stadium, cinemas and theatres can now run at full capacity.

“I thought, well, we missed New Year’s, so why not come out and celebrate?” said Nicola Webster Calliste, 29, outside a club in Leeds, northern England.

“It’s like a new chapter.” Alex Clarke, 40, was at the front of the queue outside a club in north London.

“There’s a bit of apprehension and uncertainty about the protocols,” Clarke said. “But as long as everyone is sensible, then it’ll be alright.” Covid-19 travel rules and self-isolation for close contacts remain in place.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who is self-isolating after his health minister was infected — has defended the move, dubbed “freedom day” by some media, but urged people to remain prudent.

The government says thanks to a rapid vaccination programme, the risks to the healthcare system are manageable.

But the approach is marked by “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”, said University of Bristol public health expert Gabriel Scally.

Elsewhere in Europe, countries including Greece, the Netherlands and Spain, have been forced to reimpose restrictions to battle new outbreaks recently.

And in France, cabinet members were expected on Monday to approve stricter vaccination rules requiring people to show either proof of full vaccination or a recent test to enter public venues such as restaurants, bars, shopping centres, long-distance trains and cinemas.

The coronavirus is known to have claimed more than four million lives since it emerged in late 2019 but, for some nations in the Asia-Pacific, the worst is still ahead. Indonesia has in recent days overtaken India and Brazil as the global Covid-19 hotspot, its daily death toll hitting a record 1,338 on Monday.

There are fears people travelling for the Eidul Azha festivities could spread the virus further, and authorities in the vast Muslim-majority country strengthened roadblocks on Monday for the start of the holidays.

Vietnam ordered about a third of its 100 million people to stay at home in several provinces as it battles new outbreaks — with a record 6,000 new daily infections reported.

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2021

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