Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid and the government’s scientific advisers struck a markedly different tone yesterday as they confirmed that almost all coronavirus restrictions in England will end on Monday 19 July.
Far from hailing “Freedom Day” as the exciting, safe return to normal that everyone craves, the Prime Minister emphasised that “this pandemic is not over”, amid estimates that hospital admissions with coronavirus could reach between 1,000 and 2,000 per day at the next peak this summer, with deaths reaching 100 to 200 per day in the government’s central scenario, and higher according to other models.
This is a particularly difficult stage to model, dependent as it is on vaccine effectiveness, levels of existing immunity from previous infections, and the great unknown of how our own behaviour will or won’t change. We haven’t done this before, letting the virus rip through a partially vaccinated population, and we have never seen a “natural” wave of the virus before, brought down not by imposing restrictions but by letting the virus reach a natural peak and then peter out on its own.
The question in government is whether that natural wave will even happen, or whether the next peak will, like the others, have to be brought down by restrictions. We’re moving into a strange new world where there is no longer a policy programme for controlling the virus, just a lot of continued, sometimes conflicted, guidance, and a strong word of caution from Boris Johnson.
There will be bigger short-term political rows today and in the weeks ahead, not least surrounding the vote on the cut to the international aid budget, which will take place today with an expected rebellion of Conservative MPs. But the decision to end almost all coronavirus restrictions in England on 19 July is the biggest decision the government will make all year, even if it takes months before we know what it really means.