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England Has Lifted Most Of Its COVID-19 Restrictions, Even As U.K. Cases Are Up 41%

People dance at Egg London nightclub early Monday in the British capital.
Rob Pinney
Getty Images
People dance at Egg London nightclub early Monday in the British capital.

England has lifted most of its domestic COVID-19 restrictions, marking a milestone as the country moves into a new phase of pandemic life — what some have dubbed "Freedom Day."

Young people gathered at nightclubs just after midnight to celebrate the return of crowds to raucous indoor spaces. "This is what life's about," one clubgoer said.

The move to phase four of the country's reopening plan means there are no limits on the size of social gatherings or events, and social distancing is no longer required. The government still recommends meeting outdoors when possible.

Requirements to wear face coverings have been lifted, though masks are still recommended in crowded areas such as public transport. They are requiredon the London Tube. And the government is no longer instructing people to work from home if possible, though it anticipates a gradual return to the office.

Restrictions are lifting, but cases are rising

The loosened restrictions are happening as cases in the U.K. spike to the highest levels since January — up 41% over the previous week.

"Today, we've taken the fourth step on the prime minister's road map. We faced challenges and delays. However, thanks to the success of the vaccine rollout, we are now in a position to ease the majority of our domestic COVID-19 restrictions," U.K. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said Monday.

Zahawi said the new phase brings an emphasis on personal and corporate responsibility in combating the virus.

The moves come as Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in self-isolation following close contact with the UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, who announced Saturday he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Johnson was just one of many Britons pushed into isolation after pings on their cellphones informing them they'd been exposed to someone positive for the coronavirus. Businesses across the U.K. faced labor shortages due to more than half a million people in a week receiving such pings and the recommended self-isolation measures.

A spokesman for Johnson said Monday that the prime minister had tested negative for the virus and was not displaying any symptoms. Johnson had earlier said that rather than self-isolate, he would take part in a pilot scheme that used testing instead, but he later backed off that idea.

Johnson's government is coming under fire

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer criticized Johnson and his Conservative government for lifting too many measures, calling it "a reckless free-for-all."

Meanwhile, anti-lockdown protesters gathered Monday outside Parliament, complaining that the lifted measures weren't enough.

"We don't think it's over yet. They are still mandating masks in supermarkets, people are still wearing masks, and they will try and roll out vaccines in September for the children," 25-year-old Megan Bullen, an artist, toldThe Washington Post.

Commuters on the London Underground continue to wear masks on Monday, as required on the Transport for London network.
Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Commuters on the London Underground continue to wear masks on Monday, as required on the Transport for London network.

There's confusion around the rules

The changing rules caused some confusion on the Monday morning commute. The BBC reported that because masks are mandatory for Transport of London services but not for Thameslink trains that also serve stations in the city, commuters might take their masks on and off as they switch trains – depending on their direction of travel.

Travelers to the U.K. from France also complained that quarantine rules that had been set to lapse were instead renewed. The rules require anyone arriving from France to quarantine for five to 10 days, even if they are fully vaccinated, due to concerns about the beta variant.

"We don't think the United Kingdom's decisions are totally based on scientific foundations. We find them excessive," Clément Beaune, France's minister of state for European affairs, told BFM TV, Reuters reported.

Britain has seen one of the world's highest death tolls from COVID-19. But it now has a higher vaccination rate than its European counterparts: 87.9% of U.K. adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 68% have received a second dose.

Scotland moved to its lowest level of restrictions on Monday but still has mandatory face coverings and limits on gatherings. Northern Ireland plans to lift some restrictions on July 26, and Wales on Aug. 7.

Even before Monday's move to phase four, England had played host to mass gatherings. The British Grand Prix, a Formula 1 race, drew 140,000 spectators to the country's Silverstone Circuit on Sunday.

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.