NOEL KING, HOST:
Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, is ready to lift almost all COVID-19 restrictions in England in about two weeks. He says it's time to get back to near normal, at least, and time to let people make their own decisions.
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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We will change the basic tools that we have used to control human behavior, will move away from legal restrictions and allow people to make their own informed decisions about how to manage the virus.
KING: But in England, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all going up. NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt has been following this story. Hey, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: So the virus is continuing to spread. The delta variant has everyone very worried. What is Boris Johnson's logic here?
LANGFITT: Well, he admits that the pandemic is not over, but his argument is this - that the government has done a very good job at vaccinating the majority, certainly of adults, way over the majority of adults in this country and that these vaccinations have basically, from his perspective, largely broken the link between the disease and hospitalization and, you know, a large number of deaths. And so far, if you look at the numbers, there really is a big difference today than there would have been back in January. I mean, right now, we're at 27,000 cases a day. Deaths are averaging about 18 a day. And if you go back to January, maybe mid-January, in one day, you had over 1,800 deaths.
Now, to be really clear about this for people, this is a trade-off. And I think the government knows this. And certainly, scientists recognize this, as well - that if they're going to have more cases, this is going to lead to definitely more deaths. But the argument they're making to some degree is it's really time to open up the economy and get society back into something that looks like near normal.
KING: Do other political leaders in the U.K. agree with Boris Johnson on this?
LANGFITT: There are definitely some criticisms. I mean, one thing - certainly, we've heard from unions. For instance, I'll give you an example. A union that represents the public transport workers - they call this an act of gross negligence. And Keir Starmer - he's the leader of the opposition Labour Party - he called the whole idea reckless.
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KEIR STARMER: The public know the infection rate is going up. And they're bound to pinch themselves and say, why on earth, then, are you throwing off all protections at the same time? Of course, we want to open up. But to throw all protections at the same time is reckless.
LANGFITT: And people are really focusing, Noel, on the idea that Johnson has that people will no longer be enforced. You know, they won't have to wear masks all the time indoors and out. And already, Saqid Khan - he's the mayor of London - he's saying, you know, we really still want to have these on the tube, on buses and on trains. And so it's going to be very - I think the mask - the desire to not enforce masks anymore is going to be a big sticking point for people.
KING: Oh, that'll be interesting. And then I wonder, what are public health officials and scientists saying? Are they speaking with one voice in either direction?
LANGFITT: You're hearing some concern and sort of people being pretty cautious about it. I mean, one thing is there's expectation that when Johnson actually lifts these restrictions, if he does do so in the next couple of weeks - it'd be around July 19 - we'd be seeing about 50,000 cases a day here. And speaking on the BBC this morning, Neil Ferguson - he's with Imperial College London - he called Johnson's move a slight gamble.
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NEIL FERGUSON: And this is the million-dollar question. If we get very high numbers of cases a day - 150,000, 200,000 - it still could cause some pressure to the health system and, of course, some, you know, public health burden.
LANGFITT: And it's important to remember that these plans are only for England, and it's not a final decision. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - they have their own COVID policies.
KING: OK. NPR's Frank Langfitt, we appreciate you watching this one for us. Frank, thank you.
LANGFITT: Happy to talk, Noel.
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