‘Britain’s great gamble’: who is saying what about Freedom Day unlocking

Boris Johnson warns the public not to get ‘demob happy’ as restrictions look set to be lifted

Boris Johnson
(Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Social distancing and mask rules are set to be ditched in England as the country is on track for so-called “Freedom Day” on 19 July, Boris Johnson confirmed last night.

At a Downing Street press conference, the prime minister said the government was looking to “move away from legal restrictions” and would instead allow people “to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus”.

Yet he warned the public this was not the moment to feel “demob happy”, adding that “it is very far from the end of dealing with this virus”.

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Although the lifting of restrictions won’t officially be confirmed until 12 July, when the latest Covid-19 health data will be reviewed, “it does seem more likely than not that this will happen”, says Alan McGuinness for Sky News.

Here is the reaction to news of the “the great unlocking” from across the UK media.

England’s great gamble begins

It was a “solemn” address, writes The Times’ Tom Whipple, who noted that while “the prime minister was announcing England’s freedom day, but there was no pretence that he was also announcing a victory day”.

“So it is that England’s, and by extension Britain’s, great gamble begins,” said the paper’s science editor.

For The Sun, the announcement was greeted with jubilation: the paper lauded it as the moment Johnson “cried freedom” by giving the go-ahead to a “bonfire of Covid restrictions” on 19 July, in a move that will pave the way for “a summer of fun after a gruelling year and a half of draconian measures”.

The Independent’s Tom Peck, however, had stronger words for Johnson’s announcement. He derided the prime minister as a “fat-tongued chancer” who was “refusing yet again to fulfil the most basic function of his office, which is to seek to keep his people alive”.

“But don’t get too bogged down in that for now,” he added. “Just focus on the freedom.”

A return to individual responsibility

Yet for The Daily Telegraph the scrapping of social distancing rules heralds the “return to individual responsibility over state intervention”, and signals a significant “change in government approach” to the pandemic just ten days after the resignation of former health secretary Matt Hancock.

Indeed, in the 16 months since lockdown measures were first imposed, they have been “removed, amended, watered down, bolstered, tiered and reimposed in a bewildering welter of rules, regulations and laws that represent the greatest curtailment of individual liberties of modern times”, the paper’s leader says.

And while this was once “justified” to curb the spread of the disease, now that mass vaccination has “abated” the risk, “such illiberal measures” are “no longer defensible, whatever residual anxieties some people may feel about contracting Covid”.

The move to lift restrictions is something of a “leap into the unknown”, a senior minister admitted to Politico last night, but the government felt it had “no other option but to proceed with the unlocking”, or “face the prospect of ongoing restrictions indefinitely”.

Yet “worryingly for Johnson if this does all go wrong, his SAGE body of government experts will be able to say they warned him”, Politico adds.

Government advisers at Sage published a paper yesterday cautioning against the “serious risk” of allowing case numbers to rise, warning that if a new, more dangerous measurement were to arise, lockdown measures “would be required for much longer”.

The warning came as Health Secretary Sajid Javid told BBC Radio 4 that he expected case numbers to rise to 50,000 by 19 July, arguing that restrictions could be lifted due to the “wall of defence” created by vaccinations.

“We want to be very straightforward about this… but what matters more than anything is hospitalisation and death numbers. That is where the link has been severely weakened,” he told the radio station.

“We’re just shrugging and moving on because the Tories are bored with it now,” argues Sean O’Grady in The Independent, who describes the moves to end restrictions as “grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory”.

“It is as if Winston Churchill decided to pack it in just after the D-Day landings, because, y’know, people are fed up with the rationing and doodlebugs and they want the old days back,” he continued.

‘Matter of life or death’

While many might be celebrating 19 July as Freedom Day, for many immuno-compromised people, lifting restrictions will be “especially terrifying”, tweets ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston.

“For those whose immune systems are compromised or suppressed, the efficacy of vaccines is much reduced. For others among the frail, any residual risk of becoming infected is too great, because for them it is literally a matter of life or death.

“The prime minister’s freedom day is a day of sheer dread for far too many people,” he continued.

And on issues such as mask wearing, “Johnson’s laissez-faire approach may be out of step with public opinion”, writes Politico.

A YouGov poll, published on Monday, found seven in ten Britons think face masks should continue to be mandatory on public transport, while three in five believe they should be mandatory in shops and some enclosed public places for a further period of time once restrictions are lifted.

Indeed, the British public has “consistently proved more cautious than ministers”, says The Guardian. “It may be more so when recalling that two-thirds of the 128,000 Covid deaths came after we were first urged to ‘learn to live with the virus’ in September.”

Yet, it is “unarguable” that the nature of the pandemic has changed in the last weeks, writes the BBC’s health correspondent Nick Triggle.

The UK’s widely successful mass vaccination programme has “altered everything, reducing both the individual risk and the wider one to the health system”.

Nevertheless, we find ourselves attempting to return to normal “in the face of a rapidly rising rate of infection” – and a vastly more infectious variant, the Delta strain. “Others will soon face similar dilemmas. It’s why the world will be watching what happens on these shores.”

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