Boris Johnson may tone down ‘freedom’ rhetoric amid reopening jitters

Boris Johnson is expected on Monday to urge the public to behave responsibly as he confirms plans for the 19 July reopening in England amid government jitters about the risks of the big-bang approach.

The final decision about 19 July will be taken on Monday morning, based on modelling from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) about Covid cases and pressures on the NHS.

The prime minister still believes it is “now or never”, with a later reopening potentially posing even higher risks as cases could peak as children return to school and winter looms.

Two Whitehall sources told the Guardian that ministers had been spooked by internal polling. One said the data showed just 10% of the public support the policy of scrapping all restrictions at once, while another said substantially more people believed the government was moving too quickly than at the last reopening step on 17 May. These accounts were denied by No 10.

A cabinet minister said the health secretary Sajid Javid’s admission that there could be 100,000 new Covid cases a day over the summer had raised eyebrows among some colleagues. Medical advisers were fighting a rearguard action to slow down the reopening plan, they added.

Government sources conceded that while Johnson had warned the public at last Monday’s press conference not to be “demob happy”, his cautious message had “got slightly lost” as he announced the scrapping of all restrictions, including mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing.

The UK reported 35,707 new cases on Friday and the deaths of another 29 people within 28 days of a positive test. The cumulative number of cases across the UK throughout the pandemic has now exceeded 5m.

One in 160 people in England tested positive for Covid in the week ending 3 July, Office for National Statistics figures showed, up 58% in a week. In Scotland the figure was one in 100.

On Monday ministers are likely to continue to stress that while an increase in cases will be inevitable whenever restrictions are lifted, the link between cases, deaths and hospitalisations has been broken.

Several sources said the most likely outcome of Monday’s deliberations was for the government to press ahead with 19 July but tone down the “freedom day” rhetoric. One said it “would be political suicide” to U-turn.

The government has already sought to assuage concerns about what Labour has called a “summer of chaos” with millions of people potentially isolating, by promising to tweak the NHS Covid-19 app to make it less sensitive.

But Keir Starmer said on Friday that that approach was like “taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”. Speaking as he completed a three-day visit to Northern Ireland, the Labour leader said: “It is so obviously to weaken the defences that we have – and if the consequence of the prime minister’s decision is that people are deleting the NHS app, or the app is being weakened, then that’s a pretty good indicator that the decision of the prime minister is wrong.”

Starmer said he did not want to preempt the data, which is expected to be published on Monday, but said: “The prime minister’s approach [is] lifting protections in one go at the same time, notwithstanding that infection rates are rising at a pretty alarming rate.”

Public polling carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Economist suggested high support for continuing some restrictions in the short term, with 70% of people saying compulsory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport should continue for at least a month after 19 July, and 66% saying the same for social distancing at venues such as pubs and theatres.

With work-from-home guidance also expected to be dropped from 19 July, a Sage subcommittee suggested in a report on Friday that working from home reduces the risk of catching Covid by in the range of 54% to 76%.

“Working from home currently occurs in the context of a wide range of other measures that also reduce the number of effective contacts that allow for viral transmission. While individually these other measures may not contribute much, together they do add up to a significant impact, the report said. “There is scope for the epidemic to grow considerably more quickly if all these mitigating factors are relaxed over a short period of time.”

Source: Theguardian.com

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