London: It’s the moment millions in the UK have longed for in the past 16 months: the lifting of all pandemic restrictions. July 19 is “Freedom Day”, as many politicians in the ruling Conservative Party call it.
However, public health experts are still seriously concerned. Many say it is too early to drop all remaining measures given the spread of the coronavirus delta variant across the country. The British government’s own scientific advisory group has warned of the uncertain consequences.
But for many entrepreneurs it is a relief to be able to work normally again. All businesses, including nightclubs, bars, and theaters, can operate without restrictions.
Capacity limits due to COVID-19 are lifted, while measures such as wearing masks and social distancing are left to personal choice and without mandatory enforcement.
One of the only rules that remain in place is that anyone who tests positive for the virus or is in close contact with someone who may need to self-isolate for a period of time depending on their age and vaccination status.
Large indoor event organizers are encouraged to introduce certification measures where guests provide negative test results or evidence of vaccinations. However, companies can ignore the certification guidelines if they so choose.
Relief mitigated by uncertainty
Business leaders’ optimism is dampened by concerns about what might happen if the public health situation turns critical again.
Many asked for more detailed guidance from the government.
“This is the news businesses across England have been waiting for and many will be relieved to hear the Minister of Health finally give the green light to reopen,” said Claire Walker, Co-Executive Director of the British Chambers of Commerce , in a press release. “But they still don’t have the full picture they urgently need to properly plan the unlock.”
The Association of Small Businesses made a similar statement.
After an earlier bull market, the government itself has begun to exercise caution. When “Freedom Day” was originally proclaimed in early summer, the high vaccination rate in Britain was positively combined with low case and death rates to fuel a strong optimism.
However, the spread of the delta variant has meant that the daily case rates have risen to over 30,000 in recent weeks. Newly appointed UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid admitted on confirming the July 19 plans that the daily case numbers could soon hit 100,000.
The government insists that the vaccination program has broken the link between case numbers, hospital admissions and deaths. However, the uncertainty has helped soften government rhetoric, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The term “Freedom Day” has been half retired as there is a tacit acceptance that the restrictions could return if the situation got out of hand.
Many people who work from home will continue to do so long after July 19th. “Although the government no longer instructs people to work from home whenever possible, we expect and recommend a gradual return to work over the summer,” said a government spokesman.
An economic boom
Nonetheless, economists see a positive side as many predict the reopening will add momentum to an already strong recovery.
“We expect the reopening to fuel the recovery through two channels,” Andrew Goodwin, UK chief economist at Oxford Economics, told DW.
“First, the reopening of facilities that are still closed, such as nightclubs and major events. Second, due to the lifting of social distancing restrictions that resulted in many eateries not operating at full capacity. Overall, we expect GDP growth of 7.3% this year. “
But he also sees a major economic risk if the public health situation escalates again. “We know from last year that high numbers of COVID cases can damage consumer confidence and discourage social consumption,” he said. Second, the higher the number of cases, the greater the pressure on the NHS [National Health Service] and the more likely it becomes that restrictions will have to be reinstated. “
July 19th will be the closest to normal for the UK economy since March 2020, but is still significantly different from when the pandemic first broke out.
The virus has left deep scars. At least 129,000 people in the UK have died. In many city centers, things remain unusually quiet during the big move to remote working.
The UK Treasury Department is expected to have pumped just under half a trillion euros in pandemic-related spending into the economy by 2022. The economy has not been so controlled by the government since the 1970s.
In addition, the UK has completely left the EU internal market and customs union since the start of the pandemic, with the post-Brexit transition period ending on December 31, 2020. The economic ramifications are only just beginning, according to Goodwin, and a post-pandemic recovery is unlikely to have much of an impact on the overall Brexit effect.
“We see COVID and Brexit as different time periods,” he said. “The main impact of the pandemic is likely to be short-term, but the damage to UK growth prospects from Brexit is likely to be felt over a longer period in the form of lower FDI [foreign direct investment]”Companies are building European hubs in the EU rather than the UK, and population growth is slower due to lower immigration.” At the moment, many in the UK are hoping to celebrate sovereignty from the virus and not the EU.