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‘Freedom day’ in England as virus surges worldwide

London, United Kingdom: Office workers without face-masks cross London Bridge in London. — AFP

LONDON: Day-to-day pandemic restrictions were lifted in England on Monday but “freedom day” was met with deep concern from scientists as coronavirus cases surge across the nation – and around the world. Fueled by the more infectious Delta variant, cases are spiking across the Asia-Pacific, parts of Africa and Europe, and even the heavily vaccinated United States.

The 2020 Olympics were set to open on Friday in Tokyo, hit by a fourth coronavirus case in the athletes’ village and the refusal of major sponsor Toyota to run any Games-related TV ads, further eroding support in Japan for the problem-plagued event.

Daily infection numbers have also climbed in Britain, averaging more than 50,000 since last week. But despite accusations against the UK government of recklessness, it lifted legal mandates on social distancing, wearing masks and working from home, urging personal responsibility instead.

‘A new chapter’

Nightclubs in England reopened their floors to dancing at the stroke of midnight for the first time since March 2020, while sports stadia, cinemas and theatres can now run at full capacity. “I thought, well, we missed New Year’s, so why not come out and celebrate?” said Nicola Webster Calliste, 29, outside a club in Leeds, northern England. “It’s like a new chapter.”

Alex Clarke, 40, was at the front of the queue outside a club in north London. “There’s a bit of apprehension and uncertainty about the protocols,” Clarke said. “But as long as everyone is sensible, then it’ll be alright.”

COVID-19 travel rules and self-isolation for close contacts remain in place. Prime Minister Boris 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 program, the risks to the healthcare system are manageable.Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News he was “confident” the government was “doing the right thing” now, before any winter resurgence in respiratory disease.

But the approach is marked by “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”, said University of Bristol public health expert Gabriel Scally. Scotland and Wales, whose devolved governments set their own health policy, said they would maintain the mask mandate among other curbs. European nations including Greece, the Netherlands and Spain have been forced to reimpose restrictions to battle new outbreaks recently.

Lockdowns in Asia

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, 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.

Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, was placed under partial lockdown, with millions more people in the nation’s south ordered to stay home, a day after the nation recorded its highest daily caseload. Although Australia has enjoyed far lower case numbers than most nations, it is also struggling with outbreaks in its two biggest cities. Melbourne extended a lockdown, meaning roughly 12 million Australians 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. “We are running our service without resting,” Than Than Soe told AFP at the bustling office of her volunteer group.

US surge

Worries have also grown in the United States, where despite a majority of the adult population receiving at least one shot and months of declining spread, COVID-19 cases have soared by 135 percent over the past two weeks. Los Angeles, which has seen a sharp spike, renewed its mask mandate, and the US surgeon general warned that other areas may have to do the same.

In West Hollywood nightclub Revolver, clubbers were warned in the queue: no mask, no entry. It frustrated the fully vaccinated at the venue, who said they should not have to suffer because of those refusing to get shots. “Why should we feel responsible for individuals who don’t want to protect their own body?” said Anthony Bawn, a 36-year-old screenwriter. “If they force me to (wear a mask), I’m going to go home.” – AFP

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