On the day that nearly all legal Covid restrictions go, one could be forgiven for presuming ministers would be in the mood for celebration. Instead the press conference Boris Johnson led this afternoon to mark so-called freedom day proved a sombre affair. The Prime Minister was forced to dial in remotely after having to self isolate as a result of coming into close contact with the Health Secretary last week, who has since tested positive for Covid. From his self isolation, Johnson went on to unveil plans for vaccine passports for nightclubs and contingency plans to keep the country moving as millions face self isolation in the coming weeks.
Johnson began the press conference by offering a justification for his decision to lift nearly all restrictions despite rising cases. Echoing his previous comments on the matter, the Prime Minister said it was a matter of 'if not now, when?'. He said there 'comes a point after so many who have been vaccinated when further restrictions no longer prevent hospitalisations and deaths, but simply delay the inevitable'. Yet with both deaths and hospitalisations rising, Johnson said some precautions needed to remain in place.
Despite calls from his own MPs to bring forward the self-isolation exemption for the double-jabbed or ease the test and trace app, Johnson said it was essential the system stayed in place. Although he attempted to 'briefly' get out of self isolation himself this weekend (something he sought to downplay in the Q&A), Johnson said it was ‘one of the only shots we’ve got left in our locker to stop the chain reaction' of Covid spread. The comments point to the nerves in government at the lifting of restrictions. In recent weeks, ministers have softened their language on mask use – suggesting it is the right thing to do in enclosed spaces. With few tools left, government figures feel they have little choice but to keep self-isolation rules in place in the coming weeks.
But there are some areas where the rules are changing. As industry chiefs warn of staff shortages across the board that could bring Britain to a standstill, critical workers are to be exempt from self isolation if they are double-jabbed and can provide proof of a negative test. Meanwhile, the rules on socialising indoors are being tightened. After Brits headed to nightclubs last night to mark the easing of the rules, Johnson announced that from September nightclubs will only be open to those who can show proof of double vaccination.
This means that despite repeated suggestions from ministers that vaccine passports would not be used domestically, they are coming. Part of the reason for this is that ministers are concerned by relatively low vaccine uptake amongst the young and are hoping to incentivise them. But given that the Prime Minister wouldn't even rule out the possibility of vaccine passports to get a pint, it's another sign that talk of a return to normality anytime soon is wide of the mark.