‘Freedom Day’

‘Freedom Day’ arrives with a whimper as mixed messages and fears of new Covid wave dampen celebrations

Analysis: Boris Johnson had reportedly planned a triumphant speech to mark the ending of restrictions in England, but as more people get sick with Covid, businesses are left counting the cost of confusing messages from government, writes Ben Chapman

Monday 19 July 2021 21:38
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<p>Clubs ushered in f</p>

Clubs ushered in f

It was meant to be a triumphant expression of England’s success in vanquishing Covid-19. Boris Johnson had reportedly planned a “Churchillian” victory speech to be delivered at a historic venue on what has been dubbed “Freedom Day”.

As it turned out, the ending of legally enforced restrictions in England arrived with more of a whimper than a flourish of wartime rhetoric.

An alarming rise in hospitalisations forced the government to tone down its message significantly. The prime minister was also faced with the embarrassing inconvenience of having to self-isolate after the health secretary, Sajid Javid, came down with virus, all of which took the sheen of the celebratory mood as the country sweltered in sticky 30-degree air.

Those concerns were far from the minds of clubbers on dancefloors across the country who were the first to embrace the ending of restrictions as midnight rolled round on Sunday.

Starved of the particular kind of hedonistic release that only nightclubs can offer, revellers partied through the night after queuing up for hours in some cases. At London’s Heaven nightclub balloons rained down on an ecstatic crowd as a new era was – hopefully - welcomed.

“It was extremely emotional to see clubs and venues reopen, with people dancing and listening to music into the early hours of this morning,” said Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night-time Industries Association.

People felt safe stepping into clubs for the first time in 17 months, he said, but he warned that the 19 July re-opening was only the first step on a long road back towards financial sustainability for an industry that has been decimated by the pandemic and saddled with huge debts.

“In many respects relief has come from the end to uncertainty,” Mr Kill said. “But it’s hard to shake the nagging concern over a winter surge resulting in further restrictions being brought in from October, and nightclubs being the scapegoat.”

His words would later prove to be prescient.

Scientists were already warning ahead of Monday’s re-opening that the congregation of thousands of people, many of them not yet vaccinated, in nightclubs risked creating a wave of new “superspreader” events.

Far away from the blur of flailing limbs and dancing bodies on England’s dancefloors, statisticians were publishing cold, hard data showing just how bad a position the UK’s hospitality industry is in.

As freedom day dawned, the Office for National Statistics revealed that spending in pubs, bars restaurants, hotels and nightclubs had recovered to only 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic level by the end of May.

In the City of London too, there was little sign that the country had turned a corner. Share prices plunged and traders’ screens flashed a sea of red when stock markets opened at 7:30am.

The FTSE 100 index dropped 2.3 per cent, wiping £44bn of the value of some of the biggest companies listed in the UK. The FTSE 250 index lost a further £9.6bn of value. The reason? Investors fear of a resurgence of Covid-19 could derail the global recovery.

Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, summed up the mood: “Far from giving investors a jolt of confidence, Freedom Day has seen it evaporate, as sharply rising infection rates disrupt businesses across the UK,” she said.

A big part of the problem is that rising case numbers inevitably mean that, as well as people getting sick, many more must self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has Covid.

“From retail to manufacturing and hospitality, the warnings are coming thick and fast that mandatory isolation is leading to reduced business operating hours, a drag on sales and a reduction of output,” Ms Streeter explained.

Greene King said it had closed 33 of its pubs due to staff shortages while Slug and Lettuce owner Stonegate has reported 1,000 staff are currently unavailable. The so-called pingdemic has also threatened to force the closure of factory production lines, including those at Nissan and Rolls-Royce.

On shop floors, in pubs and offices, employers each took their own approach on Monday, interpreting government guidance as best they could in the few days since it was published.

In Soho, John Darling, head of operations at Japanese Peruvian restaurant Chotto Matte, was relieved at the rule changes.

“The removal of social distancing regulations will enable restaurant professionals to fully concentrate on their guests, providing memorable visits and world-class quality rather than focusing on QR codes, checking into track & trace and wearing a mask to the toilet,” he said.

“Atmosphere, hospitality and engagement will once again be the top of our agenda!”

At the Fourpenny Shop Pub & Hotel in Warwick, owner Chris Proudfoot said plastic screens had been removed but table service - which is no longer required by law - was continuing. “Some of our staff are wearing face shields but some aren’t,” he said.

Just down the road, at Torry’s DIY store, owner Sue Butcher reported that it had been an “incredibly busy morning” and 95 per cent of customers had kept their masks on in store. “Of those that weren’t, several asked if we would like them to and customers were still practising social distancing,” she said.

For office workers, Freedom Day looked a lot more like business as usual than a watershed event. Commuters, perhaps unsurprisingly, did not flock back to sauna-like London Underground carriages.

Passenger numbers on the Tube during what used to be known as rush hour were at just 38 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and there was no increase from last week. By 10am, just 790,000 people had tapped in for a journey, compared to 2.1 million on an average July day in 2019.

Buses actually saw a 4 percentage point fall in passenger numbers compared to last week, according to Transport for London. A spokesperson said an estimated 85 per cent of passengers were still wearing masks.

As evening arrived, there was bad news for businesses that had been rejoicing just hours earlier as it was announced that some of the new-found freedoms were to be taken away.

The government said that no one would be able to attend a nightclub or large event after the end of September unless they could show that they have received two doses of vaccine.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, said the announcement was a “hammer blow, on a day when nightclubs… were finally given hope that they could start to trade viably and make progress toward rebuilding and paying off accrued debts.”

It seemed to provide a further example of the government’s inconsistency during the pandemic.

“As recently as last week, the government asked us to work with them on a voluntary scheme,” she said.”

Meanwhile, infection numbers continued to move higher. Some 322,170 people tested positive in the past seven days, up 41.2 per cent on the previous week. Patient admissions to hospital were up 39.5 per cent at 4,317 for the week and 296 people died – up 48 per cent.

It has often been said during the pandemic that people have become “immune” to statistics; that even the most shocking figures have lost their power to shape our actions.

So it is perhaps the more attention-grabbing symbolism of 19 July 2021 that will become the enduring public memory; the symbolism of a prime minister who declared Freedom Day and then spent it self-isolating in his country residence, Chequers, with his “Churchillian” victory speech presumably in the bin.

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