LONDON (AP) – Corks popped, beats boomed and dizzying revelers took to the dance floors as England’s nightclubs reopened Monday as the country lifted most of the remaining coronavirus restrictions after more than a year of lockdowns, mask mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions on freedom.
For club-goers and nightclub owners, the moment lived up to its media-given moniker, “Freedom Day.” But the big move out of lockdown has been greeted with nervousness by many Britons and with concern from scientists, who say the UK is entering uncharted waters by opening up when confirmed cases rise rather than fall.
From Monday, face masks were no longer required by law in England, work-at-home counseling ended and, with social distancing rules, there were no more limits on the number of people attending theater performances or major events.
It’s the first time nightclubs have been allowed to open their doors in nearly 18 months, and from London to Liverpool, thousands of people danced the night away at “Freedom Day” parties that started at midnight.
“I am absolutely ecstatic,” said clubber Lorna Feeney at Bar Fiber in the northern England city of Leeds. “That’s my life, my soul — I like to dance. It binds me,. It is awesome. It makes me feel so good.”
At The Piano Works in London, customers filled the area around the locked dance floor Sunday night as a host counted down to midnight.
After a ceremonial ribbon was cut, the crowd rushed to the dance floor as confetti cannons went off and a disco ball twirled above. Soon, unmasked clubbers dancing to a live band’s rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” filled the floor.
Mark Troy, one of the attendees at The Piano Works party, called the return of nightclubs “a most joyous occasion.”
But while entertainment companies and ravers are cheering, many others are deeply concerned about the UK government’s decision to lift restrictions at a time when COVID-19 cases are on the rise due to the highly contagious delta variant that was first identified. in india. The number of cases last week hit 50,000 a day for the first time since January, although virus deaths remain relatively low so far.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has backed off talk of freedom in recent weeks, urged the public to “show caution and respect for other people and the risks the disease continues to pose.”
As a reminder of how unstable the situation is, the prime minister spent “Friday Day” in quarantine. Johnson and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak are both in self-isolation for 10 days after contacting Health Minister Sajid Javid, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.
Johnson initially said he would do daily tests rather than self-isolating — an option most people don’t get — but turned to widespread public outcry.
The Prime Minister is one of hundreds of thousands of Britons who have been quarantined for being near someone who tested positive. The situation is causing staff shortages at restaurants, car manufacturers and public transport, among others.
Globally, the World Health Organization says the number of cases and deaths is rising after a period of decline spurred by the delta variant. Like the UK, Israel and the Netherlands both opened wide after vaccinating most of their people, but had to re-impose some restrictions following new waves of infection. The Dutch prime minister admitted that lifting restrictions too early was “a mistake”.
In the US, many areas abandoned face coverings when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear them in most environments. Some states and cities are now trying to decide what to do if the number of cases rises again.
UK officials have repeatedly expressed confidence that the vaccine rollout in the UK – 68.3% of adults, or just over half of the total population, have received two doses – will keep the public health threat at bay. But leading international scientists described Britain’s ‘Friday Day’ as a threat to the entire world, and 1,200 scientists backed a letter to the British medical journal The Lancet criticizing the Conservative government’s decision.
“I can’t think of a realistically good scenario to get out of this strategy, I’m afraid,” said Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester. “I think it’s really a degree of how bad it will be.”
Tang said nightclubs, in particular, are powerful areas of distribution, as they increase close physical contact between a core customer base — people ages 18 to 25 — that have not yet been fully vaccinated.
“That’s the perfect mixing vessel for the virus to spread and even generate new variants,” he said.
The government wants nightclubs and other busy places to check whether customers have been vaccinated, have a negative test result or have recovered from the disease.
However, there is no legal obligation for them to do so, and most say they won’t. 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” on to businesses.
“Make it mandatory or don’t mandate it,” Kill said. “This puts an inordinate amount of pressure on us.”
Johnson’s decision to remove the legal requirement for face masks in indoor public areas – while advising people to keep them on – has also caused confusion.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has said they will remain mandatory on the capital’s subways and buses, and some shopkeepers said they would encourage customers to keep their masks on. But many believe that implementing such policies will be difficult without the backing of the law.
Psychologist Robert West, who sits on a scientific panel advising the government, said people are warning to be careful without giving them in-depth knowledge of the risks “like putting someone on the road without teaching them to drive”.
The end of restrictions in England is a critical moment in Britain’s handling of the pandemic, which has killed more than 128,000 people across the country, the highest death toll in Europe after Russia. Other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are taking slightly more cautious steps to get out of lockdown and are sticking to mask requirements for now.
At the Egg nightclub in London, clubber Alex Clark admitted he felt “a little apprehension and insecurity”.
Fellow clubber Kevin Ally had no problem with that.
“There is zero concern,” he said. “The only concern is why we haven’t been here for a year and a half. It’s been a long time since we’ve been out.
“It’s good to be back, and we’re here to dance.”
Sylvia Hui and Jo Kearney in London contributed to this story.
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