Misc 08/07/2021

Johnson opts for near-total opening despite scientists' views

The Prime Minister advocates for the voluntary use of masks even in public transport from July 19th

3 min
Boris Johnson at a press conference at Downing Street this afternoon

LondonBoris Johnson and his Health Minister, the newly appointed Sajid Javid, have been in a relentless battle with the scientific community and members of the public transport unions. The British government wants to open up society almost 100% from July 19th - for the time being, with the exception of international travel - as promised by the Prime Minister last month, after postponing the date, originally scheduled for June 21st. But the contagion data is every day more alarming with a growth during the last seven days, in relation to the previous week, of almost 67%, and 380 more hospital admissions. The Delta variant, which is 60% more contagious, is the cause.

However, the government justifies the decision because vaccination has broken the link between infections and hospitalizations and deaths. Despite the exponential increase in recent days, the fact is that the figures show that the pandemic is now in a different phase. On January 24th there were 26,101 cases and 3,109 hospitalisations. By contrast, on June 28th there were 27,725 cases and 305 hospitalizations.

In any case, Johnson will announce in the coming hours that the use of the mask will be voluntary in all spaces, outdoors and indoors, and that the rule of physical distance of more than one meter between people of different bubbles will end- which is almost no longer enforced anywhere, as has been seen during the matches of the Euro in Wembley - nor will it be necessary to sign with a QR code when entering a pub, bars or restaurants. As he said on June 14th, he believes that Britons "have to learn to live with this virus" and "have common sense". The measures he announced again on Monday only affect England, because in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the respective administrations dictate their own calendar.

Perhaps the most controversial measure is the aforementioned voluntary wearing of masks on public transport. Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), has said in a number of interviews with the British press: "Once again there is a real danger that the government will water down a policy on critical issues about which it has not prepared sufficiently. Common sense and medical advice would seem to indicate that some level of control should be maintained in the public domain".

How many deaths are acceptable?

So the debate is on. The question poses a double dilemma, according to experts. On the one hand, whether it is legitimate for the government to shed responsibility and rely on private individuals to keep contagions at bay. Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the scientific committee advising the government, told BBC Radio 4: "If the government gives you all the responsibility, we'll run into problems.... We would never say, 'Vaccinate if you want to, and if you don't want to, don't'. Why do we have to say that about face masks, if they are a very important measure?" Professor Robert West, of the Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare, has also said, in this case to Sky News: "The idea that the government can abdicate its responsibility is nonsense".

The other dilemma that no one in the government wants to answer is what is an acceptable level of deaths that the inevitable increase in infections will cause in the coming months if, so far, just over 33 million people have received the full vaccination schedule in the country, which is the one that stops with a very high percentage of Delta variant infections. Estimates by some scientists and media outlets such as the Financial Times suggest that by the end of the year there will be 10,000 more victims. But all this is very uncertain and depends on many different factors.