Coronavirus Briefing: England is Living with the Virus

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Boris Johnson scrapped the remaining restrictions.

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The New York Times

Andrew Testa for The New York Times

This week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he was scrapping the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England, saying it was time to live with the virus.

While he did not declare the nation’s health crisis over, the move put his country ahead of most others in Europe regarding the speed with which it hopes to return to normal life.

For insight into the approach, I spoke with Claire Moses, a writer for The Morning in London.

What happened in this latest round of lifting restrictions?

Basically, everything has been lifted. A lot of things had been open already — restaurants, pubs, movie theaters, you name it — but now the final restrictions are also gone. That includes mask requirements, even on London’s public transportation, and legal isolation requirements, even if you have the virus.

We also have access to free rapid tests, which we get through the National Health Service, but those won’t be free anymore after April 1. My guess is that will mean that people will stop testing, unless they’re very ill, because no one is going to say, “Let’s buy tests before we see each other.” It’s just not realistic.

What does lifting isolation requirements mean?

So if I test positive, I no longer have to isolate. I’m still encouraged to stay home, but it’s no longer legally required. If you get Covid or a nasty flu, you’re probably going to do the responsible thing and stay home anyway. But since you essentially no longer have to tell anyone if you test positive — and after April, you may not even know if you are infected unless you pay for a test — it may change the calculation for some people. Maybe you have a trip planned and you’re not going to cancel it. Or maybe you have a party or a dinner you really want to go to, so you do. This makes everyone’s personal risk assessment very, very difficult.

Why is Boris Johnson doing this?

On the one hand, he’s saying the virus is here to stay and we need to accept that and adopt it into our daily lives. But he’s also in the middle of a major political scandal here. There is a police inquiry into whether he broke his own government’s lockdown rules by attending multiple parties. So his critics are saying that lifting the remaining restrictions is a way to distract attention from that.

What are health experts saying?

Health officials are extremely wary, and N.H.S. leaders have also said they’re against the end of the free testing. Something else to keep in mind is that the lifting of all restrictions doesn’t protect vulnerable people. They have warned that politicians shouldn’t say the pandemic is over, because it isn’t — Covid is still among us, and while cases have been dropping dramatically, tens of thousands of people around the country still test positive every day.

The N.H.S. is also dealing with another crisis: The pandemic has worsened delays and backlogs. Millions of procedures have been delayed, including cancer screenings and essential care.

What’s the latest on Queen Elizabeth?

The queen, who is 95, seems to be having a mild case of Covid with “coldlike symptoms.” But she did cancel her virtual appearances. According to the media here, she’s still performing some “light duties.” One of those duties, as the BBC reported, is “reading state papers.”

What’s life like in London these days?

Everything is open. More and more people are starting to return to the office. I was on the tube, what we call the subway here, during rush hour this week, and it was crowded. Even if it wasn’t quite as crowded as two years ago. Nightlife is up and running. Theaters are full — and the audiences seem extremely happy to be there. People are back in pubs. In many places in town, it looks like we are living with Covid.

How does that feel?

On the one hand it feels great, because who doesn’t love normalcy? We love the theater. We love the pub. We love hugging each other. We love going to work … sometimes. But on the other hand, this pandemic has been very scary for everyone in different ways, and especially so for people who are older or more vulnerable. So, going back to a world where it seemingly doesn’t exist feels abrupt.

Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

The World Health Organization announced plans to establish a training hub in South Korea to teach low- and middle-income countries to produce their own mRNA vaccines. The effort, which aims to train 370 people from around the world starting in July, would help to mitigate global vaccine inequality and the shortage of skilled workers in the vaccine manufacturing industry, the agency said.

The announcement followed the organization’s ongoing effort in South Africa to reverse-engineer existing mRNA vaccines and share the technology with low-income countries, after attempts to cooperate with Pfizer and Moderna to share the technology had been unsuccessful.

The W.H.O. also said that African countries would be able to accelerate their vaccination programs because of a change in the system of vaccine distribution.

Previously, the agency would send vaccine doses to African countries as they became available. But since January, countries have been able to request the vaccines they need from the W.H.O. directly, specifying in what quantity and when. As a result, they have been able to significantly ramp up vaccination efforts.

The continent had been expected to reach the target of vaccinating 70 percent of the population by August 2024. But now, the W.H.O. said, it seemed like that target could be met by early 2023.

Well, we did EVERYTHING right. We wore masks, we ate all our meals with friends outdoors, we got vaccinated twice and then boosted. We made it just about two years without getting infected. We got the virus skiing in Park City in January 2022, where we — again — did everything outdoors and wore our masks indoors. It was a super frustrating experience to have “played by the rules” and still gotten sick. That experience definitely makes us feel more willing to live life a little bit more, because not doing so didn’t really pay the expected dividends.

— Ilene Winters, West Dover, Vt.

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