Freedom day? Boris Johnson faces a tough call as Covid cases soar
The prime minister seems intent on lifting England’s remaining Covid restrictions on 19 July. But many in the NHS fear it could be overwhelmed – and tourist hotspots are fearful too
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With foreign holidays still in doubt and Cornwall filling up by the day, Jessica Webb has a unique perspective on “freedom day”. With her sister, Naomi, and her father, Spence, she helps run Falmouth Surf School and Watersports on Maenporth beach. Bookings for surf lessons are strong, and Jessica, 38, has started running yoga classes on paddleboards anchored in the cove to cope with excess demand.
She is also a part-time healthcare assistant in the A&E department at Cornwall’s only major hospital, in Treliske. “Even now, before the summer holidays have started, we don’t have enough staff in the hospital, people are waiting hours at A&E, the ambulances are all parked up outside,” she says. “There’s just so little capacity and so few beds – even for the people that live here all the time, let alone all the holidaymakers.
“But my family business needs tourists. So I see it from all sides – the pressure on services but also the small, local businesses like ours that need visitors. As long as people are a bit careful, it will be a great summer.”
Others visiting the sheltered bay feel the same mix of excitement, tempered with some trepidation. Ray and Olwen Woolcock, 66 and 63, have not had the best weather for their two-week campervan trip around Cornwall but are still enjoying the beach under a grey sky. “We’ve both been double vaccinated,” says Olwen. “We are still being very careful though. I do wonder whether it’s a good idea to let all the restrictions go overnight – are we going to end up regretting it?”
Maenporth’s Life’s a Beach cafe is busy all year round but has already had to close for eight weeks since the May half-term due to Covid, after cases began to rise rapidly again. James Wright, 24, who owns the cafe with his family, then caught Covid himself, which meant another complete closure. “It’s become increasingly difficult with staff having to isolate,” says Wright. Most of his employees are young, and while many have had one vaccination dose, very few have had two.
Along the coast on a bend of the Helford river, near Falmouth, Martin Barlow’s family has owned the Budock Vean hotel since 1987. But they have never faced a summer season like this before.
As Covid cases have skyrocketed once more, almost half the hotel’s kitchen staff have been isolating at the same time, having been pinged by the NHS contact-tracing app.
“I was pot washing in the kitchen a couple of days ago, I’ve been night portering, I’ve been waiting tables in the restaurant, and I’ll be back pot washing again tonight,” he says. “It’s been extremely challenging and I have to make difficult decisions every day – staff shortages are also hitting our supply chains too. This season is a fantastic opportunity for people to come to Cornwall. But the situation is precarious at the moment, and there is the potential for chaos with the isolation regime as it stands.”
On Monday, as Covid cases soar again, Boris Johnson – under intense pressure from many of his own MPs to get the country back to normal – is expected to confirm plans for England’s “freedom day” on 19 July. He has already delayed the removal of most restrictions once, pushing the date back from 21 June, so the political heat is on.
At a press conference last week he emphasised that the pandemic was “far from over” and that caution should still be the watchword. But his past rhetoric and his populist instincts have, in the view of many other politicians, health experts and scientists, left him taking the wrong route along his Covid roadmap at a time when danger signals are flashing everywhere on the dashboard. “I think they are mad to press ahead with all this,” said a senior shadow minister. Yet Johnson’s view, and that of the new health secretary Sajid Javid, is that mass vaccinations have broken the link between infections and deaths, so it is prudent to announce a return to life and business as we used to know both.
But doctors, scientists and the doubters in parliament are all asking the question: will doing so push up Covid cases to intolerable levels that will swamp the NHS again? And out there in the world of business and leisure, will there be enough people available to work? While businesses are desperate for normality, many cannot find sufficient staff, either because they are ill or self-isolating or because, in the case of many EU workers, they have left the country since Brexit.
Covid is again causing nationwide disruption to hospitals, restaurants, warehouses, airports, caravan parks and laundry services. On Friday, the UK recorded another 35,707 new Covid-19 infections, the highest number of daily cases since 22 January. On Saturday the government’s coronavirus dashboard also recorded a further 34 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, bringing the total so far to 128,399, showing the link with deaths is by no means entirely severed. But for the PM, the politics – the need to avoid another monumental U-turn – look set to prevail.
From the 19th of this month, all English premises currently closed, including nightclubs, will be able to reopen with no limits on numbers. Social distancing will be no more, face masks will no longer be mandatory and fines for not wearing them will go. The guidance to work from home where possible will end. Personal responsibility and judgment will replace government rules.
“It is a fundamental shift of emphasis,” says a senior government source. “Individuals, not government, will decide.”
Further easing will follow. In England, from 16 August, thosefully vaccinated or under 18 will not need to self-isolate following close contact with someone who has Covid.
To many experts it seems just too risky. Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said she was “profoundly concerned” about the entire strategy. The academy released a statement on Friday warning things “will get worse before they get better”, in terms of the pandemic. “There seems to be a misapprehension that life will return to normal, and that we can throw away all the precautions, and frankly, that would be dangerous.”
The desire to be free and have fun may also be restricted by growing labour shortages. About 600,000 people working in pubs, restaurants, hotels and bars were isolating last week, according to Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality. Huge numbers of people have been deleting the NHS app to avoid the same fate, and ministers are now looking at ways to reduce its responsiveness as they scramble to open up in a way that does not itself cripple the economy.
“We are seeing a high proportion of our workforce contacted by test and trace and advised to self-isolate, and it’s increasing at a quite dramatic rate,” Nicholls said. “At the end of last week, it was about one in five. And at the end of this week, it was about a third of workers, on a rolling basis, that are just unavailable for work due to self-isolation.”
The NHS is struggling to cope too. More Covid cases are among younger people who are not fully vaccinated. Doctors complain that some coming into hospitals already think they no longer have to wear masks, while the prevailing view among medics is that they should remain mandatory. “It is appalling,” said a senior consultant at a London hospital on Friday. “We are inviting the virus to spread among the very people we need to protect.”
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “For the last couple of weeks, we have heard increasing numbers of trust leaders saying that they are really worried by the numbers of staff who are having to isolate because they’ve been pinged by the NHS test-and-trace app. Obviously that has an impact on what trusts are able to do.”
“We want to see the government bring forward the date allowing NHS staff not to isolate if they’ve been double jabbed. That’s 16 August but we’d like it from 19 July. It’s really, really important – let’s not add to the mix of challenges the NHS is facing.”
We’re very worried about tourist hotspots, there’re going to be too many people trying to cram into too small an area
This week, a new NHS bill, which will lead to another huge reorganisation of the service, will have its second reading in the Commons. Labour will oppose it, saying it is the last thing needed when the pandemic is still raging and there is a huge backlog of 5.3 million non-Covid operations to catch up on.
Those in the NHS system believe the effects of the vaccine should not be exaggerated and that big risks remain. “Although vaccines have weakened the link (with serious Covid cases and deaths), it’s not completely broken,” Cordery added. “Some people need hospital treatment, and not all of them are people who haven’t had the vaccine.”
There are particular worries that hospitals in seaside areas will struggle to meet demand during the summer holidays. Normally the rush of domestic visitors is offset by the numbers going abroad. “We’re very worried about tourism in the tourist hotspots this summer because there are going to be too many people trying to cram into too small an area in too short a time,” said Ros Pritchard, director general of the British Holiday & Home Parks Association.
Problems with staff were evident. “Companies that do linen are failing to get the staff or their staff are having to self-isolate,” Pritchard added. “And I was talking to one business owner who was asking customers to bring their own bedlinen because his supplier had let him down.”
This weekend, Johnson is being pulled in opposite directions by public opinion, by businesses desperate to make money but terrified of another lockdown, and by his own backbenchers.
Tory MP Dr Dan Poulter, who also works as an NHS psychiatrist and has done during the pandemic, said that while the country needed to learn to live with the virus it should not throw caution to the wind. “The prudent thing would be to continue to use face masks and enforce social distancing where possible, for example in hospitals and on public transport,” he said.
Today’s Opinium poll for the Observer shows that 50% of UK adults think the lifting of restrictions should be postponed beyond 19 July, while a third (31%) want it to go ahead. Only 10% think it should have happened earlier. Approval of the government’s Covid handling sits at its lowest level since late February. The political danger for Johnson is clear.
In another of the country’s tourist hot spots, Clarrie O’Callaghan, who owns the Rattle Owl restaurant in York, views the coming week more with dread than expectation.
“If the last 15 months haven’t already left hospitality on its knees, getting through the next few months will cripple already fragile businesses. Our day-to-day reality balances the fear of a test-and-trace ping, or multiple pings, with how can we manage the covers we’ve got booked in.
“Do we have to close off tables, reduce bookings or indeed close the restaurant completely? We have done all of those things in the last 15 days and we are not the only ones. The financial impact is devastating.”