News analysis

Confusion instead of concerted policy as Britain limps out of Covid-19 lockdown

Officials in London always knew that lifting restrictions would mean increased infection rates. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson planned the start of this week to be a celebration.

Monday was dubbed "Freedom Day" - the day all coronavirus restrictions were due to be lifted and the nation returned to normality.

But it did not turn out quite that way. Less than a day after nightclubs were permitted to open for the first time in more than a year, officials announced new restrictions granting access to only those who have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Responding to soaring infection rates, the British government changed its long-standing opposition to vaccinating those between the ages of 12 and 18. But only a few are likely to be inoculated.

To add political embarrassment to the general air of confusion, Mr Johnson was forced to mark "Freedom Day" in isolation after he came into contact with Health Minister Sajid Javid, who has tested positive for Covid-19.

The British government wanted to lift restrictions last month, but was forced to postpone plans in response to pleas from experts who argued that, even though Britain has led Europe in vaccination rates, it was simply too soon to abandon precautions.

Since last month, however, Mr Johnson has come under increased pressure from MPs to relax restrictions, partly to safeguard the summer holidays of millions of families and partly in response to the damage of the lockdown: Last year, the British economy slumped by 9.8 per cent.

Officials in London always knew that lifting restrictions would mean increased infection rates. But they gambled that, with more than 70 percent of all adults now fully vaccinated and almost all adults due to have received at least one shot of a vaccine by the end of this month, hospitalisation and mortality rates could be kept low. In many respects, Britain is pioneering the experiment of living with Covid-19, something many other nations around the world also plan to do.

Mr Johnson's trouble is that a confused message and higher than anticipated infection figures are rattling nerves and sapping public confidence in the government's strategy.

Daily infection rates now run at anything between 40,000 and 50,000 and represent a 40 per cent increase over the previous week's daily average. And, while the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are assessed to be more than 90 per cent effective, a total of 4,300 people are now hospitalised with Covid-19 complications. At around 20 a day, death rates remain mercifully low. Still, they are up by a worrying 48 per cent in comparison with the average a week ago.

One consequence of the rapidly rising infection rates is that the Track & Trace app which many Britons have installed on their mobile phones is notifying more and more Brits to isolate themselves because they may have come into contact with infected people.

Last week, an astonishing 530,000 Britons were pinged by the app to stay at home, a move which wreaked havoc with commercial companies' back-to-work plans. Mr Steve Rowe, the chief executive of Marks & Spencer, one of the country's biggest retailers, warned that his chain of stores may have to reduce operations because of this "pingdemic", which now deprives millions from working.

But the return-to-work strategy is not the only aspect that lacks clarity. For even the priorities of Britain's vaccination programme - regarded as one of the country's success stories - are now being called into question.

Infection rates are rising fastest among the 12- to 18-year-olds, who until now were left outside all vaccination programmes.

Britain's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation - the body tasked with deciding on the policy - initially went against the trend in many other countries and refused to offer vaccine access to teenagers because of concerns about rare cases of severe heart inflammation.

Pressed by soaring infection figures, British Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi has now announced that what he called "clinically extremely vulnerable children aged over 12" - those living with immunosuppressed adults or suffering from existing serious medical conditions - will be offered the jab.

Nonetheless, the refusal to vaccinate the entire age cohort remains puzzling and defies appeals from British teachers' unions, who fear serious disruption when the new school year starts in September unless secondary school students are vaccinated.

More than 70 percent of all adults in Britain are now fully vaccinated. PHOTO: AFP

Britain's border control strategy is also leaving many experts perplexed. People returning from France, even if fully vaccinated, are now being ordered to isolate for no apparent reason. New categories of supposedly risky countries where no travel is recommended are popping up on an almost daily basis.

And there is further bewildering advice. It is no longer compulsory to wear masks, but the government "recommends" using them, and masks are compulsory on London's public transport system.

Vaccination "passports" are supposedly not envisaged. Yet only those who can prove that they are vaccinated will be able to attend certain public events.

Mr Johnson still claims that there is coherence in this policy. Few share his opinion.

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