‘Freedom Day’ has been delayed – here’s everything you need to know

‘Freedom Day’ has been delayed – here’s everything you need to know

On 22 February, Boris Johnson shuffled into the House of Commons. After a shambolic Christmas full of festive U-turns and Yuletide dismay, the Prime Minister had finally acted on rising cases of what was then dubbed the ‘Kent variant’ and placed the country in its third national lockdown with no end date in sight.

The country sought structure. Businesses sought guidance. And so, speaking to MPs, Johnson announced a roadmap out of lockdown and – while he always said he would be guided by “data not dates” – plucked out tentative dates to mark each easing of restrictions, from allowing people to meet outside in groups of six in March, to total normality on 21 June.

Until now. With cases of the Delta variant first seen in India rapidly rising, scientists grew concerned that the vaccine rollout would be outpaced by the spread of the virus, endangering the lives of vulnerable people who have not been vaccinated, and creating enough hospitalisations to cripple the NHS once more.

So, today the Prime Minister has delayed the final easing of lockdown, with the date now earmarked as 19 July – four weeks after it was pencilled into the nation’s calendar. As such, some scientists are relieved, and some MPs are furious.

So, what is going on?

The latest daily Government figures from Sunday showed another rise in infections with a further 7,490 lab-confirmed cases in the UK – up 2,149 from a figure of 5,341 the previous week.

1,089 people are in hospital, 153 more than were last week, and there were eight deaths – four more than there were last week.

Why? Because the Delta variant, which accounts for around 90 per cent of new cases, is believed to be around 60 per cent more transmissible than other iterations of Covid, and twice as likely to hospitalise those infected by it.

While the vaccines have weakened the link between cases and serious illness, they have not broken it completely and it has been estimated that it has the potential to lead to 2,000 hospital cases a day.

And while 77 per cent have had one dose of the vaccine, and 55 per cent have had two, research has shown one dose of a vaccine is 33 per cent effective against infection from Delta, compared to 50 per cent against the Alpha (Kent) variant.

In short – a small percentage of people are likely to suffer greatly. But the unvaccinated 33 per cent of the UK population is still a huge number of people. A small percentage of those people getting ill could have serious consequences.

Announcing the move, Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that the spread of the Delta variant meant “we have obviously faced a very difficult choice”.

“We can simply keep going with all of Step 4 on June 21, even though there is a real possibility that the virus will outrun the vaccines and that thousands more deaths would ensue which could otherwise have been avoided.

“Or else we can give the NHS a few more crucial weeks to get those remaining jabs into the arms of those who need them.”

He said he is “confident” that no more than four weeks will be needed and that restrictions will not go beyond July 19.

The four tests

After all, when determining whether the UK passes each stage of lockdown easing, the government has deferred to four tests it must pass: that the vaccine programme is continuing successfully, that vaccines are reducing hospitalisations and deaths, that infections are not causing a surge in hospitalisations and putting pressure on the NHS and new variants are not causing concern.

With the surge of the Delta variant, some say the UK is failing the latter two tests.

What is the final stage of lockdown easing?

The final stage of lockdown easing will see the government remove all legal limits on social contact. Meaning? Social distancing will be scrapped, there will be no rule of ‘insert number here’ when meeting inside or outside, and nightclubs (remember them?) will finally open their creaky doors to inevitable crowds of celebratory ‘revellers’. Places like theatres will also reopen. This will now happen in July, not June.

However, the exception is weddings which will still be able to go ahead with more than 30 guests – provided social distancing is in place. The same provisions will apply to wakes.

Who is in favour of the delay?

Many scientists and several opposition politicians have spoken out in support of the delay.

Speaking ahead of Johnson’s announcement, Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said that any delay to the plan for easing was “proportionate” to prevent further lockdowns.

She told LBC: “We need to buy some more time to have more people receive a vaccine.“We’ve just got about half of people with a second dose and we know that in the face of this Delta variant, that second dose is really important to provide the protection that is needed to avoid more people going into hospital.”

She added: “If we can provide more protection to the population through vaccines, then it means that we won’t have to take a step back again… So this is why an additional four weeks, which is what we expect will be announced, I think is proportionate.”

Meanwhile, Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told the Today programme that experts were “still very worried about the small numbers percentage wise, but probably large numbers of people that are still unvaccinated in the higher risk groups”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab indicated at the weekend that they wanted to use the additional time to get millions more younger people double-jabbed.

He said that while the vaccines had weakened the link between infections and hospital admissions, they wanted to be sure it was “severed and broken”.

The cautious approach was, he said, necessary to ensure the the unlocking was “irreversible” and that they did not have to “yo-yo back in and out of measures”.

What about those against it?

Johnson faces a revolt from Tory MPs. Former minister Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) of Tory MPs, said any postponement would be a “political choice”.

He warned that if the unlocking did not go ahead as planned, restrictions could carry on through the autumn and into the winter as other respiratory infections picked up.

“The effectiveness of our vaccines at preventing hospitalisation means unlocking on June 21 could proceed safely. Any decision to delay will be a political choice,” he said.

“Variants and mutations will appear for the rest of time. We have to learn to live with it.

“If our very effective vaccines cannot deliver us freedom from restrictions, then nothing ever will.”

Steve Baker, the CRG deputy chairman, questioned how long the country could “fumble along” with restrictions that had such “devastating consequences” for both business and people’s mental health.

Conservative backbencher Marcus Fysh said delay was a “disastrous and unacceptable policy”.

And The Night Time Industries Association said businesses such as nightclubs had already spent millions preparing to reopen and any delay beyond 21 June would be “catastrophic”.

How are people reacting on social media?

Reacting to the news, some people said this had occurred due to Johnson not having a stronger border policy, enabling the spread of new variants:

Speaking to LBC, Labour leader Keir Starmer slammed the government’s border policy as “pathetic”.

“Isn’t there a collective frustration about this?” he said, and dubbed the government’s traffic light system for foreign travel “ridiculous”.

Others felt frustrated by the delay and the hashtags #Imdone and #Enoughisenough trended on Twitter as the usual suspects weighed in:

As did #whataboutweddings, as many chose this as their hill to die on. Johnson, however, has said weddings will still go ahead.

And some are against the term ‘freedom day’:

There we are, then.

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