UK's Freedom Day: PM's massive backflip as he's forced into isolation

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As Britain prepares to drop all restrictions in a controversial move dubbed "Freedom Day", the country's leader has been forced into isolation.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will spend 10 days self-isolating after contact with a confirmed coronavirus case — reversing an earlier announcement that he would not have to quarantine after facing an uproar.

Johnson’s 10 Downing St office said the prime minister and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak were both alerted overnight by England’s test-and-trace phone app.

Both had met recently with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 on Saturday (local time). Javid, who has been fully vaccinated, says he is experiencing mild symptoms.

Members of the public queue to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in the Turbine Hall at a temporary Covid-19 vaccine centre at the Tate Modern in central London on July 16, 2021.
About 68 per cent of UK's population is now vaccinated. Source: Getty

People who are notified through the app are supposed to self-isolate for 10 days, though it is not a legal requirement.

But Johnson’s office initially said the prime minister and Sunak would instead take daily coronavirus tests as part of an alternative system being piloted in some workplaces, including government offices.

PM's backflip on Covid plan

That plan was reversed less than three hours later after an outcry over apparent special treatment for politicians. Downing St said Johnson would self-isolate at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence, and “will not be taking part in the testing pilot".

It also said Sunak would self-isolate.

In a video message, Johnson said he and Sunak had “briefly” considered taking part in the pilot scheme.

“But I think it is far more important that everyone sticks to the same rules, and that’s why I’m going to be self-isolating until Monday, July 26,” he said.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, likened Johnson’s Conservative government to bank robbers who “got caught and have now offered to give the money back".

“Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been busted yet again for thinking the rules that we are all following don’t apply to them,” he said.

“The way the prime minister conducts himself creates chaos, makes for bad government and has deadly consequences for the British public.”

Britain is experiencing rising coronavirus cases due to the more infectious delta variant, and is seeing a related “ping-demic” of hundreds of thousands of people being told to quarantine because they have been near someone who tested positive.

Whole classes have been sent home from schools. Hospitals are short of workers. Businesses including restaurants, car manufacturers and the London subway say they are facing staff shortages because of the self-isolation rules.

Many London theatres, which have only recently resumed performances as restrictions eased, have had to cancel performances because cast and crew members were told to quarantine.

The government says it will remove the requirement for people who have been fully vaccinated to self-isolate after contact with an infected person, but not until August 16.

UK readies for 'Freedom Day'

In a touch of irony, Mr Johnson's spell in isolation comes as his government prepares to lift remaining lockdown measures on Monday, dubbed "Freedom Day".

Nightclubs can reopen in England for the first time since March 2020, sports and entertainment venues can admit capacity crowds and face masks are no longer mandatory indoors. Thousands of people were planning to go clubbing once the clock struck midnight on Sunday (local time).

However scientists have slammed the move of reopening and ditching physical distancing guidelines, calling it a "dangerous and unethical" experiment.

Revellers at a nightclub in London during Pride Week in 2018.
Nightclubs in the UK expect to return to pre-pandemic norms on July 19. Source: Getty

“Proportionate mitigations will be needed to avoid hundreds of thousands of new infections, until many more are vaccinated,” an article recently published in medical journal The Lancet said.

“Nevertheless, the UK Government's intention to ease restrictions from July 19, 2021, means that immunity will be achieved by vaccination for some people but by natural infection for others (predominantly the young).

“The UK Health Secretary has stated that daily cases could reach 100,000 per day over the summer months of 2021.”

The government is urging people to be cautious, as cases surge because of the delta variant, first identified in India.

More than 54,000 new infections were confirmed Saturday, the highest daily total since January.

Cases have been on the rise again in the UK. Source: Our World in Data
Cases have been on the rise again in the UK. Source: Our World in Data

Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths are also rising, but remain far lower than at previous infection peaks thanks to widespread vaccination. More than 87 per cent of British adults have had one vaccine shot and 68 per cent have had both shots.

Still, British officials are looking nervously at Israel and the Netherlands, both of which opened up widely after vaccinating most of their people but had to reimpose some restrictions after new infection surged.

The Dutch prime minister admitted that opening up too early “was a mistake".

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