Britain has celebrated “Freedom Day”, with the government lifting most COVID-19 restrictions in the country on July 19. And there are very mixed feelings among venues, experts and punters about the move.
The UK hospitality industry has lost 10,000 venues, $87billion in sales and more than 350,000 jobs since the pandemic began last year. From this week, masks and QR codes to enter pubs will no longer be a legal requirement, table-service-only rules are gone, nightclubs can reopen and there are no limits on how many people can meet.
“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted to social media.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, said: “For the vast majority of hospitality businesses, July 19 will be the first time in 16 months that they have been able to realistically look to break even and move towards profitability.
“Hospitality businesses will continue to provide safe and enjoyable experiences as we move into the summer and beyond and, in doing so, will also safeguard jobs, livelihoods and the venues we cherish so much.”
While the government would prefer nightclubs and other crowded venues check whether customers have been vaccinated – with so called “COVID Passports” – and prove they have a negative test result or have recovered from the disease before they go out, there is no legal requirement for them to do so.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said many owners see the passes as a huge turn-off for customers and accuse the government of “passing the buck” to businesses.
“Either mandate it or don’t mandate it,” Kill said. “This is putting an inordinate amount of pressure on us.”
How pubs feel about Freedom Day
While many pubs have proudly shared photos on Facebook of their staff serving customers without masks and have urged patrons to return in their droves, others have sounded notes of caution about the end to COVID-19 restrictions.
The Brown Cow (above) announced on Facebook: “We’ve followed the rules, tried to keep you all safe and done everything they’ve asked of us during this horrendous time. From today however we won’t be following their guidance.”
“The Cow will do it their own way…We need to limit the risk of staff becoming ill and us falling victim to closure again. Our order point screen and sanitisation points will remain in place, we would prefer you to use them.
“We will not be introducing bar stools until we feel it is safe to do so. We shall be offering table service to those that prefer it. We will be keeping windows and doors open for ventilation. Thank you all for the continued support as we navigate through this next chapter.”
Clive Watson, chief executive of the City Pub Group, which runs 45 pubs across England and Wales, told the BBC’s Today program: “I think that staff should be encouraged or instructed to wear masks, I think that’s very important, and I also think from a customer’s point of view we will still try to offer as much service as possible at the table.
“What we don’t want is a free for all scrum at the bar, with lots of people queuing up. Nearly 50% of our customers order their food and drink via the app, we want to continue that, with the rest ordering at table. We want to continue that as well.
“It’s not like flicking a switch back to February 2020. We’re not going to say you cannot order at the bar – but we’re going to make it as easy as possible to order from the table. We’re not going to militant about it – but we’re not going to encourage people to order at the bar.
“Staff will be encouraged to tell people: ‘No order at the table, that way you’ll get quicker service, easier service and safer service’. And I think a lot of customers and staff will welcome that. It might not work for all. It’s about making customers and staff safe.
“It’s easier to tell staff that it is best practice to wear masks. Customers will be more difficult but then they should be encouraged to wear masks and we will also have masks behind the bar.
“Again we won’t be militant about but I think a lot of staff and customers will welcome people continuing with those safe practices that we’ve had over the past 18 months’.
As for patrons, ABC News reports they packed the area around the cordoned-off dance floor at The Piano Works in London on Sunday night as a host led a countdown to midnight.
“Once a ceremonial ribbon was cut, the crowd ran toward the dance floor as confetti canons went off and a disco ball spun above,” it said. “Soon, unmasked clubgoers dancing to a live band’s rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” filled the floor.
One of the people attending The Piano Works party, Mark Troy, called the return of nightclubs “a most joyous occasion.”
The COVID-19 situation in the UK
In the UK, more than 79 million vaccine doses have been administered, with every adult having been offered at least one dose and 64% of adults having received two doses.
However, England has the seventh highest death toll in the world at 128,708. It is forecast to soon have more new COVID-19 infections each day than it did at the height of a second wave of the virus earlier this year, although daily deaths are falling. There are only about 40 per day, compared to above 1800 in January.
Currently, one in 95 people in England has COVID, according to the Office for National Statistics. And hospital admissions rose 61% last week to 4.43 for every 100,000 people.
There are public fears COVID-19 restrictions are being ended too soon. Here are the results of a recent You Gov poll:
Like the UK, Israel and the Netherlands opened up after vaccinating most of their people, but have reimposed some restrictions after new infections surged. The Dutch prime minister even admitted that lifting restrictions too early “was a mistake.”
BMJ notes: “In June, Israel’s successful vaccination programme saw infections plummet and the country drop nearly all of its social distancing restrictions, but four weeks later the government was forced to reimpose certain restrictions as the delta variant spread across the country.”
Leading international scientists are describing Freedom Day as a threat to the whole world. The move led 1200 scientists to back a letter to British medical journal The Lancet, criticising the government’s decision.
They say a COVID-19 strategy that tolerates high levels of infection is “both unethical and illogical”.
“We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment,” they said.
Speaking at an event hosted by non-profit campaigning group The Citizens, former secretary of the Australian health department Stephen Duckett said: “There are two criteria that you should be considering. Firstly, is the pandemic under control? And secondly, is the population protected? If you open up when either of those is not the case, you are doomed to an exponential spread of the virus, exponential increase in hospital admissions, and exponential increase in deaths.
“The UK still has neither of those in place. They’ve got good vaccination rollout but it’s still not high enough, and they still haven’t got the pandemic under control. It’s foolish to open up right now.
“In one area of Israel we have over 80% of the population fully vaccinated with Pfizer and they still had a serious outbreak where many kids got infected and also infected their parents. Even the minister of health claimed that the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine against becoming infected and infecting others dropped from above 90% to around 60%, which is very bad.”
“Right now, we see in Israel an outbreak of about 100 cases per million people a day. We are also seeing people dying, even though they are fully vaccinated,” added the executive director of the Kohelet Policy Forum, Meir Rubin, who advises the Israeli government on risk management and national policy. “I really hope that the government in Israel will change course soon from mitigation to elimination, protecting our kids until we can vaccinate all of them hopefully in the first quarter of 2022. And I think we will see a lockdown in Israel in a few weeks unless we act very aggressively now.”
COVID-19 restrictions in Australia
Sydney and Melbourne remain in lockdown, with restrictions also being imposed in South Australia. Orange and surrounding areas the in Central West have also been plunged into a seven-day lockdown after a local factory worker tested positive.
The escalating lockdowns leave the Australian hospitality industry at a difficult crossroads.
Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief Alexi Boyd told the Herald Sun that any extension of the lockdown’s COVID-19 restrictions would be “devastating” for Victoria’s small business sector.
“We don’t have anything else left on the balance sheet, there are no more cash reserves left,” Boyd said. “Our members are just keeping their heads above water covering day to day expenses.”
In NSW, stay-at-home orders are in place in Greater Sydney until at least Friday, July 30.
Australian Hotels Association Director of Liquor and Policing John Green told Sky News: “Obviously, the venues have gone through a lot over the last 16 months.
“From ten weeks of shutdown, to operating over the last year after that with significant restrictions to then be forced back into lockdown now. Many of them have obviously been spending a lot of their capital, their available funds, over the last year while operating under restrictions.
“Now they’ve been shut down for two, at least three weeks – they’re in dire straits. Their financial situation is more grim by the day.”