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19 July 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 11:20am

How will “freedom day” play out across the UK?

By Stephen Bush

The government will announce the end to almost all restrictions in England on 19 July later today: along with the end to table service, the test-and-trace doohickeys at every establishment, and social distancing – and an end to the legal obligation to wear masks in enclosed spaces, including public transport.  

Is it too early to unlock?

Is it too early to unlock? Scientists are divided: some believe that we should wait until everyone has been given the opportunity to have both their jabs, to minimise the risks to the young of the Delta variant and of new, vaccine-resistant variants. Others think that with the elderly and vulnerable vaccinated, and the reality that Covid-19 will be with us forever, now is the time to begin returning to normality.  

The reality within the government is that whatever direction the science points in, the balance of forces within the parliamentary party compels it take one direction: towards the end of all restrictions. But the question is: what will the various devolved institutions do? It’s Transport for London that decides whether you wear a mask on the London Underground, and it seems perverse, to put it mildly, that I might be forbidden to have a can of lager on the Tube but be allowed to go maskless, given that the direct health benefits to you of the former are not much to write home about whereas, whether it is in avoiding a cold, the flu or Covid-19, the benefits of the latter are significant. And it is the Scottish and Welsh governments that will decide what happens with Covid-19 restrictions in their own territories.  

When it comes down to it, the emotionally draining and economically damaging restrictions are going to end for political reasons in all four parts of the United Kingdom, whether those reasons are restive backbenchers or growing non-observance. But something as generally non-obtrusive as mask-wearing could, I suspect, become something this government wants to avoid above all: a visible symbol that they do things differently in Scotland than in England, and with it a further boost to the SNP’s argument that that difference would be better represented by Scotland going its own way. 

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