BORIS JOHNSON can often channel John Bull, a ruddy cartoon figure from Georgian England. He personified the liberty-loving English yeoman, in opposition to Napoleonic tyranny. Announcing England’s first pandemic lockdown in March 2020, Mr Johnson lamented “taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”. Government behavioural scientists warned that Britons would defy even modest restrictions, and fretted about disorder and looting.
Bull. For 16 months Britons have complied dutifully and, for the most part, uncomplainingly. But on July 19th Mr Johnson will scrap nearly all the remaining anti-covid measures in England. Nightclubs will reopen, capacity caps will be lifted on restaurants and masks will no longer be mandatory. The tabloids have dubbed it “Freedom Day”. Conservative MPs are overjoyed; many Britons are not.
Polling by Ipsos MORI for The Economist suggests two-thirds think masks, social distancing and travel restrictions should continue for another month (see chart). A majority would support them until covid-19 is controlled worldwide, which may take years. Even more strikingly, a sizeable minority would like personal freedoms to be restricted permanently. A quarter say nightclubs and casinos should never reopen; almost two in ten would support an indefinite ban on leaving home after 10pm “without good reason”.
Some caution is hardly surprising. Cases are rising fast and may reach 100,000 a day, according to Sajid Javid, the health secretary. That would be nearly twice as many as at the peak of the winter wave. Sir Keir Starmer, the opposition leader, calls the removal of restrictions “reckless”.
Yet Britain’s exceptionally high vaccination rate will limit the rise in hospital admissions and deaths. Vaccination has driven covid-19’s fatality rate down from 0.8% of estimated infections to below 0.1%, the same as for seasonal flu. Unlocking now will mean the increase in covid-19 infections comes before winter, when flu picks up. Schools, where much transmission happens, are about to go on holiday.
Public willingness to sacrifice for the common good in a time of crisis has surprised ministers. One insider says he has changed his mind on whether Britons would volunteer for war: “I’d always assumed that if my generation was shown the Kitchener poster, they’d say: ‘No chance, mate’.” But the pandemic has also revealed John Bull’s authoritarian streak.
Many Britons did not go out dancing or drinking, or take overseas holidays, even before the pandemic. Nightclubs, casinos and dark streets harbour all sorts of wrongdoers. For some, it seems, endless lockdown is an acceptable price for everyone else staying home. ■
All our stories relating to the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on our coronavirus hub. You can also find trackers showing the global roll-out of vaccines, excess deaths by country and the virus’s spread across Europe and America.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “The strange myth of liberal England”