Boris Johnson’s plan to scrap most of England’s Covid-19 restrictions has prompted alarm, wariness and perhaps even a hint of envy around the world.
Politicians in the north and south of Ireland, which stands to be most affected by its neighbour’s experiment, expressed concern about its consequences being exported across the Irish Sea.
Authorities in other parts of Europe and in New Zealand gave a more mixed response but none said they planned to follow England’s lead.
Johnson announced earlier this week that his government would revoke hundreds of regulations and make England the most unrestricted society in Europe from 19 July. The so-called “big bang” reopening is expected to go ahead despite warnings that daily cases in England could soar to 50,000 before masks and social distancing are ditched.
“I think it is a reckless approach,” said Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. “We will not be following the Boris Johnson model; we are a locally elected executive, we must take our own decisions in the people’s best interests here.”
O’Neill, a member of Sinn Féin, said she supported the region’s health minister, Robin Swann, who favours continued use of face masks. “It is a case of trying to make steady progress, coming out of the restrictions as best we can, but I am not prepared to go to the end of the line yet because that is not where we are,” she said.
Hospital admissions in Northern Ireland have increased 50% in the past seven days and the R number is estimated at between 1.2 and 1.6.
The Irish government in Dublin expressed concern at how Downing Street’s strategy might affect the Republic of Ireland, which is bracing for a wave of infections fuelled by the Delta variant.
“You can get a sense in terms of what’s happening in the United Kingdom when you have very large events with large crowds,” the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, told the Dáil on Tuesday. “It can go wrong.”
The deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said: “The prospect of packed theatres in the West End and nightclubs in Manchester being packed to the rafters is one that would concern us, quite frankly. If things go wrong in England that will have spillover effects in Ireland and other neighbouring countries.”
Organisers on Wednesday cancelled the Dublin marathon, scheduled for 24 October, citing too many uncertainties.
The president of Italy’s higher health institute gave a guarded welcome to Downing Street’s strategy but said Italy would not follow suit. “So Great Britain is reopening? Good for them,” Silvio Brusaferro told Corriere della Sera. “For us, the Covid-19 monitoring is working.”
Italy registered 480 new coronavirus cases on Monday and a further 31 deaths. There are concerns about the spreading Delta variant, with outbreaks occurring in holiday hotspots and mainly among young people. The variant accounts for about 17% of total Covid-19 cases.
“I believe assessments must be made on the basis of the local epidemiological situation,” added Brusaffero. “Therefore, good for the British if they can regain some freedoms.”
All of Italy is now in the “white zone” level of restrictions, meaning everything is open apart from nightclubs. Italy dropped the obligation to wear face masks outside in late June, although many people continue to wear them. The mask rule remains in place when inside shops, restaurants, using public transport and when in crowded outside areas.
Spain, which is reporting a surge in cases, introduced tougher entry rules for UK visitors last week. The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said concerns over “the negative evolution” of the Delta variant had prompted a rethink and led Spain to require proof of full vaccination at least 14 days before arrival, or a negative PCR, TMA, LAMP or NEAR test. Until last Friday, visitors from the UK had been allowed to enter Spain and its islands without a PCR test.
Germany, in contrast, is to ease restrictions on arrivals from the UK from Wednesday, meaning those who can prove they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from coronavirus will no longer need to quarantine.
The UK has yet to make the EU’s travel green list, a recommendation to allow non-essential travel into the bloc. EU diplomats added 10 countries to the list last week, with Armenia, Canada and Qatar bringing the list to 23. Australia, Japan, Rwanda, South Korea and Thailand were among those already on the list.
While the EU vaccination campaign has picked up after a shaky start, the union remains behind the UK. Across the 30-country European Economic Area, 40% of adults are fully vaccinated and 61.5% have had their first dose, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. While Hungary leads the way, with 61.2% of its adult population fully vaccinated, only 14.9% of Bulgarians have been double-jabbed.
A European Commission spokesperson said it was looking at how best to protect its citizens from variants. “I don’t think I would frame our reactions in terms of whether we have to react against the British or the UK government. That’s not the case. What we think about is how do we make sure EU citizens are the most protected taking into account the epidemiological situation in the member states and outside the member states.”
Johnson’s warning that England must “reconcile” itself to more deaths will not be emulated in New Zealand, the country’s Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, told a news conference.
“We are likely to see more incremental change than dramatic change where we wake up one morning and say: ‘We just go back to the way things were before Covid-19,’” he said.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said: “Different countries are taking different choices.”