‘Freedom day’ in England as virus ramps up in Asia
England lifted most pandemic restrictions Monday despite surging infections and dire warnings from experts, as the Delta variant swept parts of Europe and Asia and new cases in the Olympic Village threatened to mar the upcoming Tokyo Games.
The highly transmissible Delta variant first detected in India is driving new outbreaks, along with a relaxation of measures as countries seek to kickstart virus-battered economies.
In Britain, daily infections have climbed, averaging more than 50,000 since last week, with Delta taking hold in many areas.
But despite accusations of recklessness, the UK government lifted legal mandates on social distancing, wearing masks and working from home, urging personal responsibility instead.
– ‘Moral emptiness’ –
Nightclubs in England reopened their floors to dancers at the stroke of midnight for the first time since March 2020, while sports stadiums, cinemas and theatres can now run at full capacity.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that nightclubbers will have to prove they are fully vaccinated against coronavirus.
Nicola Webster Calliste, 29, was thrilled as she stood outside a club in Leeds in northern England.
“I thought, well, we missed New Year’s, so why not come out and celebrate?” she said. “It’s like a new chapter.”
Covid-19 travel rules and self-isolation for close contacts remain in place.
Johnson — who is self-isolating after his health minister was infected — has defended the move, dubbed “freedom day” by some media, but urged people to remain prudent.
The government says thanks to a rapid vaccination programme, the risks to the healthcare system are manageable.
But the approach is marked by “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”, said University of Bristol public health expert Gabriel Scally.
Countries including Greece, the Netherlands and Spain have been forced to reimpose restrictions to battle new outbreaks.
But bookings of flights to Spain from the United Kingdom have risen sharply since London lifted quarantine for vaccinated Britons returning home, according to Javier Gandara, who chairs the Airlines Association (ALA).
In France, the cabinet approved a draft law Monday intended to pressure non-vaccinated people to get a jab against Covid-19.
Due to go before parliament at the end of the week, the draft law is designed to massively extend a “health pass” system that will require people to produce evidence of vaccination or a negative test when they visit public venues such as restaurants, bars or shopping centres.
– New global hotspot –
The coronavirus is known to have claimed more than four million lives since it emerged in late 2019 but, for some nations in the Asia-Pacific region, the worst is still ahead.
Indonesia has in recent days overtaken India and Brazil as the global Covid-19 hotspot, its daily death toll hitting a record 1,338 on Monday.
There are fears people travelling for the Eid al-Adha festivities could spread the virus further, and authorities in the vast Muslim-majority country strengthened roadblocks on Monday for the start of the holidays.
Mauritania, concerned over rising Covid-19 infections, has banned mosque prayers over the Eid al-Adha holiday set for Wednesday.
Vietnam ordered about a third of its 100 million people to stay at home in several provinces as it battles new outbreaks — with a record 6,000 new daily infections reported.
Although Australia has enjoyed far lower case numbers than most nations, it is also struggling with outbreaks in its two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.
Melbourne extended a lockdown, meaning roughly 12 million people will remain under some form of stay-at-home order.
In Myanmar, where hospitals are empty because of a long-running strike against the military junta, volunteers are going house-to-house to collect bodies for burials.
– Olympics dampened –
And as organisers finalised preparations for the 2020 Olympics — set to open Friday with no spectators and with Tokyo under a state of emergency after a surge in cases — four virus cases were confirmed in the athletes’ village.
The latest Asahi Shimbun newspaper poll found a majority of respondents, 55 percent, were against holding the Games this summer, with 33 percent in favour.
In a sign of the current sentiment, auto giant Toyota said it would not run Olympics-related TV ads, and its executives will not be present at the opening ceremony.
“Toyota officials will not attend the opening ceremony, and the chief reason behind it is there will be no spectators,” Toyota spokeswoman Shiori Hashimoto told AFP.
In an upbeat move however, Ottawa announced that fully vaccinated US citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to cross the border into Canada for non-essential travel from August 9 without any quarantine requirements.
Canada said it will then reopen its borders to all vaccinated foreign travellers from September 7.