It had been clear for some time that, with infections soaring and mounting anxiety about ripping up the coronavirus rulebook, Boris Johnson’s Freedom Day was not going to be the moment of national celebration he first envisaged. But few could have predicted that the prime minister would witness the dawn of freedom in enforced self-isolation at his country retreat of Chequers.
Johnson and his chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, tried at first to dodge quarantine after they were identified as close contacts of health secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for the virus despite being fully vaccinated. But amid fears of a repeat of the uproar after Dominic Cummings's Barnard Castle escapade, they changed their minds within three hours and must now stay at home for 10 days.
Johnson and Sunak were contacted personally by NHS Test and Trace but hundreds of thousands of other people in Britain are self-isolating after being "pinged" by the contact tracing app. The app, which uses bluetooth technology to identify people who came into close contact with someone infected with coronavirus, is anonymous and its use is voluntary.
But the sharp rise in infections has seen the app alerting so many people that businesses and public services throughout the country are suffering severe shortages in what the press is calling a “pingdemic”. Johnson sought to blunt the impact on Monday by exempting healthcare workers and others involved in critical sectors from the requirement to self-isolate if they are pinged, allowing them to take daily tests instead.
But with infections set to rise even faster following the lifting of almost all legal restrictions on Monday, Johnson admitted it was “one of the only shots we’ve got left in our locker” to slow the spread of the virus. So the requirement to self-isolate will remain in place until August 16th, by which time daily infections are expected to surpass 100,000.
Although everyone over 18 has already been offered a first dose, 35 per cent of those between 18 and 30 have not taken up the offer.
This is why Johnson announced that, from September, only those who are fully vaccinated will be allowed into nightclubs and other large, crowded venues. The move contradicts repeated promises from ministers that there would be no coronavirus passports for domestic use and may upset libertarian Conservative MPs.
It is a curious kind of Freedom Day that sees up to 1.7 million stuck at home in self-isolation while a virus is allowed to rip through the population, sending a thousand people a day into hospital and dozens to their deaths.