LONDON (AP) – Sparkling wine, confetti, countdown to midnight: It’s not New Year’s Eve, but it might as well be for England’s clubbers. After 17 months of empty dance floors, the country’s nightclubs reopened with a bang.
As of Monday, face masks will no longer be a legal requirement and with social distancing rules being suspended, there will be no more limits on people attending theater performances or major events.
Public health officials fear the celebrations could cause a major hangover as more social mixing drives up Britain’s already soaring coronavirus infection rates.
From London to Liverpool, thousands of young people plan to dance the night away at ‘Freedom Day’ parties after midnight Sunday, when almost all coronavirus restrictions were lifted in England. Nightclubs, which have been closed since March 2020, have finally reopened.
London nightclub The Piano Works kicked off a countdown to midnight on Sunday, when employees cut a ribbon to the dance floor and served customers free prosecco.
“I think it’s the most magical moment when you have people who haven’t been able to dance and sing and just be normal, all running on the floor at midnight and going back to what we love,” he said. Daisy Robb, the club’s head of sales prior to opening.
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. More than 54,000 new cases were confirmed on Saturday, the highest daily number since January, although reported virus deaths have remained relatively low so far.
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 on Friday 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.”
Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s medical director Chris Whitty warned that “we could be in trouble again surprisingly soon”. Johnson himself downplayed the talk of freedom, stressing that life would not immediately return to how it was pre-pandemic.
Monday will certainly not be business as usual for Johnson. The prime minister and head of the finance ministry, Rishi Sunak, have both been in self-isolation for 10 days after contacting health minister Sajid Javid, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday despite being fully vaccinated.
They are among hundreds of thousands of Britons who have been quarantined for being around someone who tested positive. The situation is causing staff shortages in restaurants, car manufacturers and public transport.
One concern, Tang said, is of “super variants” that could crop up after people are allowed to mix without precautions over the summer. Add to that a flu flare-up in the colder months and that means “a winter of very severe proportions,” he said.
Nightclubs, in particular, are potent grounds for spreading, Tang said, as their main customer base — people ages 18 to 25 — only qualified for a first vaccine dose last month and have not yet received the second injections needed to boost immunity.
“That population is not fully vaccinated. They don’t mask. They are in very close contact, breathing heavily, screaming very loudly to the music and dancing with different people,” he said. “That is the perfect mixing vessel to spread the virus and even generate new variants.”
Johnson on Sunday urged the public to “show caution and respect for other people and the risks the disease continues to pose.” He wants nightclubs and other busy venues to use the COVID-19 status certification “as a matter of social responsibility,” and only admit customers who can demonstrate they have been double stung, have a negative test result or have recovered from the disease.
However, there is no legal obligation for them to do so. In a flash survey of 250 late night bars and clubs by the Night Time Industries Association last week, 83% said they won’t ask people about their COVID-19 status, according to Michael Kill, the trade association’s chief executive. Many owners see the passes as a huge turn-off for customers and accuse the government of “passing over” businesses.
“We’ve heard that people will boycott companies that acquire this,” Kill said. “The last thing we want after months of closure is to be hindered again in terms of trading capacity. Give it a mandate or don’t mandate it. This puts an undue pressure on us.”
Johnson’s decision to scrap the legal requirement for face masks in indoor public spaces has also caused confusion. Days after the prime minister said masks would still be “expected and recommended” in crowded covered places, but not mandatory, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that passengers on the capital’s subways and buses must continue to wear them.
Some retailers, such as bookstore chain Waterstones, 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.
The end of restrictions in England on Monday will be 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.
Salsa instructor Esther Alvero is one of many who say she is excited but anxious. As the co-founder of Cubaneando, a company that hosted salsa club nights, classes and performances for gala events before the pandemic, Alvero says she’s had almost no income in the past year. Her savings have run out and her dancers have had to survive by taking part-time jobs as cleaners or Amazon delivery drivers.
“I’m afraid, but we have to survive,” she added. “We don’t have an option because the economic impact could be worse than COVID itself.”