Global health experts have condemned Boris Johnson’s lifting of most Covid-19 legal restrictions in England on Monday as “a threat to the world”, as daily case numbers in the UK rose to more than 50,000.
The UK now has the third highest number of cases of any country in the world — only Indonesia and Brazil have more — and some scientists fear it could become a breeding ground for new Covid variants.
Ministers have warned that daily cases could soon hit 100,000 and have in recent days shown growing signs of nerves as July 19 — described by tabloid newspapers as “Freedom Day” — approaches.
Health secretary Sajid Javid declared this month that there was “no going back”, but now ministers admit restrictions may have to be reintroduced as they brace themselves for a huge spike in cases.
“Of course if we get into a situation where it’s unacceptable and we do need to put back further restrictions then that of course is something the government will look at,” Lucy Frazer, solicitor-general, told Sky News.
As the UK reported 51,870 cases — the highest figure since January 15 — global scientists at an “emergency international summit” urged the Johnson government to “urgently reconsider its proposed actions”.
The online event, organised by UK scientists opposed to ending the restrictions, attracted current and former government advisers from New Zealand, Italy, Israel, South Africa, Australia and Taiwan.
They signed a declaration saying Johnson’s decision would have “a profoundly damaging impact in England” and added: “The UK is one of the world’s leading travel hubs — any variant that becomes dominant there is likely to spread to the rest of the world.”
Stephen Duckett, former secretary of Australia’s health department, said: “There is no reputable public health adviser of any kind who would recommend opening up at a time when the virus is spreading rapidly.”
British officials say Johnson will not retreat at the last minute. Nightclubs will reopen on July 19, limits on social gatherings will end and people will no longer be legally required to wear masks in crowded places.
Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, has argued that it is better for England to suffer a Covid wave in the summer — when health systems are under less pressure and schools are off — than in the winter.
Johnson, who has been under intense pressure from Tory MPs to end Covid restrictions, also believes that the country’s “defensive wall” will be reinforced over the summer as more people are vaccinated and infected people — particularly the young — develop antibodies.
But in recent days the government’s once bullish tone has evaporated. Where ministers once boasted about throwing away their masks, Johnson is now urging people to exercise “extreme caution”.
Some fear that the Covid “wave” that Whitty is prepared to see wash over England over the summer could become a tsunami, despite the fact that the link between cases and hospitalisations has been severely weakened.
Whitty said on Thursday, referring to individual hospitals: “I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast.”
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said he “wanted” Sadiq Khan, London mayor, to require mask-wearing on public transport in the capital, even though the government has scrapped the legal requirement to do so.
Meanwhile Covid certificates, which only weeks ago were being dismissed by ministers as unnecessary, are now being recommended for use by ministers at nightclubs and other venues.
Bosses complain that they are being confronted with difficult legal issues over what to expect from customers and staff, as Johnson shifts responsibility for fighting Covid to the businesses and individuals.
Meanwhile companies and public services are being disrupted as hundreds of thousands of staff are “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app and told to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone with the virus.
The prime minister is now caught in a political vice, with Tory MPs and rightwing newspapers urging him to strike out for “freedom”, while public opinion wants him to be far more cautious.
Mark Harper, chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said Whitty was right to say that the country had to learn to live with the virus and that it was right to trust the public “to balance the risks of life”.
He criticised the chaotic government messaging of the past week, suggesting it smacked of the description by Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former adviser, of a prime minister veering unpredictably on policy issues.
“The government must govern in a way that avoids giving credence to the ‘shopping trolley’ critiques of the PM’s former senior adviser,” Harper told the Financial Times.
Meanwhile senior Tories admit that opinion polling on Johnson’s policy is “very bad”, highlighting the political risk to the prime minister if it starts to unravel.
An Ipsos Mori poll this week found that four in 10 adults supported compulsory face masks in public indefinitely, while a third of workers were “uncomfortable” about returning to the office. A quarter thought nightclubs should never reopen.