On Monday, England will do away with all of its legal coronavirus restrictions in what many people have dubbed “Freedom Day”.
Masks will no longer be compulsory indoors, social distancing will be abolished and more than six people will be allowed to mix inside homes for the first time since September last year.
But with 50,000 new COVID-19 cases per day occurring in the United Kingdom currently – the highest numbers since Britain’s third wave in January – is this the right time to be doing it?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson believes so and is backing his government’s vaccination drive – which has seen more than two-thirds of all adults double vaccinated – to allow it to happen and let the last remaining closed businesses, such as nightclubs, reopen.
There are dissenting voices though, with many experts and medical professionals voicing their concerns that removing all restrictions at once could lead to out of control infections and allow new coronavirus variations to emerge – with England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty even admitting hospital admissions could hit “scary numbers” soon.
Those in Britain only need to look across the North Sea to see what has happened in the Netherlands over the past three weeks and the devastating effects of reopening normal life too quickly – which saw infections rise more than 500 per cent in just one week.
‘You can expect a beautiful summer’
In mid-June, COVID-19 infections in the Netherlands had dropped to their lowest levels in nine months, 13 million vaccinations had been administered to the population of 17.5 million people, and bars and restaurants were open.
Dutch caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that by the end of the month face masks would no longer be required.
“This is a special moment”, he said.
“Many times I have stood here to tell you what you can’t do.
“But now we can focus on what is possible.”
On June 26, most limits on group sizes would also be lifted, providing 1.5 metres of social distancing could be observed, and there would be no new limits placed on the number of people allowed into stores, restaurants or bars if they were vaccinated or could provide a negative COVID test.
Face masks would still be required on public transport and in airports.
“We can expect a beautiful summer,” Mr Rutte said.
But he also warned the population to remain cautious and that there were still many uncertainties moving towards autumn: “You can always be stabbed in the back by a new variant.”
Nightclubs reopen and festivals return
At the start of July, nightclubs reopened and thousands of young people flocked to music festivals around the country.
If you had a state-issued QR pass on your smartphone showing you were fully vaccinated, had recovered from COVID-19 or had a recent negative test, you were free to party like pre-pandemic days.
One such “test for entry” event was the Verknipt festival in Utrecht held on the first weekend of July.
With 20,000 people in attendance, the open-air electronic music festival featured no masks and no social distancing.
Utrecht’s mayor Sharon Dijksma even scored a ticket, saying at the time the feeling of being around so many people as “special and a little tense”. View this post on Instagram
But two weeks since Verknipt, the results have been stark – around 1,000 people who attended the festival are known to have been infected with COVID-19 over the two-day event.
Ms Dijksma apologised and said she now thinks the 40-hour time frame for accepting negative tests to get into the festival was wrong.
“It was an error in judgement,” she told Dutch broadcaster NOS on Wednesday.
Infections jump 500 per cent in a week
Before the folly of the Verknipt festival had come light, the Dutch government had already started backtracking on restrictions.
By July 7, Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said the government had acknowledged a sharp rise in infections – new infections had doubled to 8,000 in the week ending Tuesday, July 6 – and was requesting urgent advice from the country’s outbreak management team.
By July 9, there were nearly 7,000 cases recorded in the previous 24-hour period alone.0100200300400Days since 100th case02k4k6k8k10k12kDaily known newcases since 100th caseNetherlands
Nearly three-quarters of the new cases were in young people and half of those cases were of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
While the spike in infections had not resulted in a significant increase in hospitalisations, Mr de Jonge said that could be threatened by the “unprecedented” rise in cases, and the government had no option but to reintroduce restrictions on hospitality.
Cafes, bars and restaurants would have to close earlier and social distancing and fixed seating was reintroduced for diners.
Nightclubs were again forced to close and all multi-day festivals and events with large crowds would be cancelled until at least August 14.
‘We had poor judgement’
Last Monday, Mr Rutte apologised and admitted restrictions were lifted too quickly.
“What we thought would be possible, turned out not to be possible in practice,” he said.
“We had poor judgement, which we regret and for which we apologise.”
The action he and his government took has drawn criticism from across the country, from within the general population to health authorities and opposition political parties.
Sylvana Simons, who heads the BIJ1 party, reportedly said the government had made a “criminal choice” to put people in danger.
The decision to reverse the restrictions has also seen a lawsuit brought against the state by around 30 festival and event organisers, including those of the Dutch F1 Grand Prix.
With daily coronavirus cases reaching 51,870 on Friday in the UK, Boris Johnson will be hoping his country does not experience the same “beautiful summer” his Dutch counterpart has.