ROME - It was 'Freedom Day' in Britain Monday — except for the country's prime minister, Boris Johnson, who was locked away and forced to self-isolate because he’d had contact with one of his key ministers who tested positive for coronavirus.
Johnson's confinement underlines the stop-start challenge the British government is finding in its efforts to open up the country while seeking to curb the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, which was first detected in India.
Freedom Day was earmarked for the lifting of nearly all pandemic restrictions and was meant to be Johnson’s moment of triumph, a reward for a rapid and successful rollout of vaccines. “Instead it became a bewildering farce,” according to political commentator Michael Deacon, a columnist for the country’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, where Johnson made a name for himself as a journalist before turning to politics.
“Say what you like about Fate, but she’s certainly got a sense of humor. How darkly comic of her, how wickedly mischievous, to arrange events so that Boris Johnson would be forced to spend ‘Freedom Day’ in solitary confinement,” commented Deacon.
And Freedom Day wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be anyway: while the carefree young packed the nightclubs, older commuters appeared reluctant to give up remote working and head back to their offices — and many businesses weren’t encouraging them to do so.
Freedoms were given back by the government but hundreds of thousands of Britons chose not to exercise them.
Hundreds of businesses, including factories, supermarkets, pubs, banks, and theaters were forced to close due to staff having, like the prime minister, to self-isolate because of having had close proximity to someone who’d tested positive. Rail and bus companies were also forced to cut some services, including in London.
Governments scramble, markets tumble
Britain isn’t the only country facing the same quandary — across the world governments are scrambling to shape strategies that allow for the easing of restrictions, while at the same time containing the virus, where in advanced countries a new pandemic of the unvaccinated is unfolding.
Nearby, the Netherlands last week had to backtrack on its grand reopening and re-impose restrictions when cases soared by 500 percent, largely among the unvaccinated young. “What we thought would be possible, turned out not to be possible in practice,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte told his nation. “We had poor judgment, which we regret and for which we apologize,” he added.
The Dutch and British experiences are being seen as salutary lessons by the markets, say analysts, with investors fearing any country that feels confident enough to lift coronavirus restrictions wholesale might be engaging in wishful thinking.
Stock markets worldwide Monday tumbled amid mounting fears that surges in Delta cases could stifle the economic recovery. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 2.1% in its worst session of the year. Britain’s benchmark FTSE 100 shed 2.3 percent, dropping to its lowest level since early April with a total of $60 billion wiped from the value of the index.
And markets across Europe all ended Monday’s trading deep in the red.
On Tuesday some European markets recovered some of their Monday losses as trading started, but Asian stock markets fell on Tuesday with Japan's Nikkei 225 index falling 1% to hit its lowest level in half-a-year, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng also losing 1%. Jittery investors sought safe havens, buying 10-year American Treasury bonds and US dollars, knocking down the value of Britain’s sterling currency to its lowest level since April.
“Increasing nerves about the delta-variant COVID-19 are sapping recovery hopes across the Asia-Pacific,” Jeff Halley, a senior market analyst with Oanda, a New York brokerage, warned clients in a note. He forecasts a messy, unpredictable week ahead on the nervous global markets.
“Optimism which had been on the horizon just a few weeks ago has again been obscured by dark clouds,” according to Susannah Streeter, senior investment analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, a British financial services company.
And clouds are darkening in many European and Asian countries with surges in delta cases.
In some English regions confirmed cases are back to levels last seen more than four months ago. English health authorities say there are now 3,813 patients in hospital suffering with COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus can trigger. That’s the highest number since March 24.
A total of 39,950 new coronavirus cases were reported Monday across Britain, the country’s highest figure since January 11. Nineteen deaths were reported. Some government scientists have warned the daily case tally could rise to 100,00 in the coming weeks. The rising cases — and grim predictions — prompted Monday U.S. authorities to urge American citizens not to travel to Britain.
The only silver lining, according to British government advisers, is that overall vaccines are holding up and breaking the link between contracting the virus and hospitalizations and deaths. But fears are mounting that as cases increase new variants might emerge that are vaccine resistant.
Neighboring European countries are also seeing disturbing increases in confirmed cases. Spain has reported 61,628 new cases — mainly of the Delta variant — since Friday.
The Italian government is set to announce that vaccine passes will soon be required in order to travel on long-distance trains, dine indoors at restaurants and enter museums, cinemas and gyms. Government officials hope the vaccine-pass requirement will encourage more of the young to get inoculated.
Over half of the country is fully vaccinated but cases are rising among the unvaccinated with health ministry officials making no secret that tighter pandemic measures are likely soon to be reimposed in the coming weeks in several regions, including Sardinia, Sicily, Veneto, Campania and Lazio, the region encompassing Rome. Infections have jumped over the past week, with 3,127 new cases reported Sunday.
France reported more than 12,500 new coronavirus cases Sunday as the government races to vaccinate the population. President Emmanuel Macron last week announced that vaccine passes would be required for entry to most public places in the coming weeks and that all healthcare workers must be fully inoculated.
And the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has issued a warning, saying it expects a sharp jump in coronavirus cases across the continent, forecasting nearly five times as many new infections by August 1.