“Freedom Day” arrived in England on Monday with its chief architect, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, confined in quarantine, millions of Britons facing the same prospect and untold people more anxious about the risks of liberation.
Those were the incongruities on the long-awaited day when the government lifted all but a few remaining coronavirus restrictions.
Even as nightclubs and pubs threw open their doors and patrons embraced each other, 39,950 new cases were reported on Monday and tens of thousands were forced into quarantine after they were notified by the National Health Service’s cellphone app that they were in contact with an infected person.
Mr. Johnson defended the decision to reopen from his country residence, Chequers, where he has been in self-isolation since Sunday after the N.H.S. notified, or “pinged,” him because he had met with his health secretary, Sajid Javid, who on Saturday had mild symptoms of Covid-19.
“If we don’t open up now, then we face a risk of even tougher conditions in the coming months when the virus has a natural advantage,” Mr. Johnson said in a news conference. “We have to ask ourselves the question, ‘If not now, when?’”
“It is right to proceed cautiously in the way we are,” he added. “It is also right to recognize that this pandemic is far from over.”
British newspapers had dubbed Monday “Freedom Day,” celebrating it as a symbolic end to the country’s 16-month ordeal with the pandemic.
But as new cases have soared and hospital admissions have begun to follow, the plan to throw open the economy instead looks like a likely recipe for a massive third wave. Mr. Johnson appeared to view a surge of infections as inevitable and worth getting through during the summer, when warmer weather and school vacations transmission.
The government’s decision amounts to a breathtaking gamble that a country with fairly widely deployed vaccines in its adult population can learn to live with the coronavirus. Nearly 70 percent of adults in the United Kingdom have gotten both doses of a vaccine.
Much will depend on the resilience of the vaccines and the capacity of the nation’s health care system to handle those who do become sick.
“The government is basically saying, ‘We’ve done all we can. Now it’s up to you,’” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “They’ve become the first country to surrender.”
Under the new rules, pubs and restaurants can operate at full capacity and nightclubs are allowed to reopen. Curbs on the number of people who can meet indoors, generally limited to six, were also lifted. The legal requirement to wear face masks was dropped, though the government is urging people to keep wearing them on public transportation. (They remain compulsory on subways and buses in London.)
The government has resisted linking vaccination status with restrictions like those recently announced in France.
There were signs of a more buoyant mood, with many restaurants scrawling “Happy Freedom Day” on their signs. Still, many people said they felt conflicted about the government’s decision to ease restrictions.
“The deaths are a bit less with the vaccination, but the people still have corona — we still have high numbers,” said Simone Papi, 24, a chef.
Isabella Kwai contributed reporting from London and Aina Jabeen Khan from Bradford, England.