England’s ‘Freedom Day’ Marred by Isolation Chaos and Warnings of Shortages

July 19, 2021 Updated: July 19, 2021

LONDON—Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “freedom day” ending over a year of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in England was marred on Monday by warnings of supermarket shortages and his own forced self-isolation.

Johnson’s bet that he can get one of Europe’s largest economies firing again because so many people are now vaccinated marks a new chapter in the global response to the coronavirus.

If the vaccines prove effective in reducing severe illness and deaths, Johnson’s decision could offer a path out of the worst public health crisis in decades.

But Johnson’s big day was marred by “pingdemic chaos” as a National Health Service app ordered hundreds of thousands of people to self-isolate—prompting warnings supermarket shelves could soon be emptied.

“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?” Johnson said just hours after he was forced to abandon a plan to dodge the 10-day quarantine requirement for himself and finance minister Rishi Sunak.

“This is the right moment but we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there.”

But, outstripping European peers, 87 percent of Britain’s adult population has had one vaccination dose, and more than 68 percent have had the two doses that reportedly provide fuller protection.

‘Freedom Day’?

From midnight, laws in England requiring masks to be worn in shops and other indoor settings lapsed, along with capacity limits in bars and restaurants, and rules limiting the number of people who can socialise together.

Johnson sets COVID-19 restrictions for England, with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland making their own policies.

As businesses across England faced a shortage of workers due to the NHS app pinging people and telling them to isolate, supermarkets warned they faced strain.

“It’s a major issue across every industry at the moment,” Marks & Spencer CEO Steve Rowe said. “If there’s shortages we’ll have to manage it by changing hours of stores, reducing hours. Where the industry will see the pain is in the supply chain, because logistics runs tight anyway to be efficient.”

British society appears split on the restrictions: some want tough rules to continue as they fear the virus will keep killing people and overwhelm hospitals, but others have chafed at the most onerous restrictions in peacetime history.

Johnson faced an outcry on Sunday when he and finance minister Sunak tried to dodge quarantine with a special scheme for senior ministers and civil servants. He will now isolate at his country residence at Chequers after health minister Sajid Javid tested positive.

As the dawn rose over London, clubbers danced through the night at one of the first rule-free live music events since the pandemic began last year.

“I have not been allowed to dance for like what seems like forever,” said Georgia Pike, 31, at the Oval Space in Hackney, east London. “I want to dance, I want to hear live music, I want the vibe of being at a gig, of being around other people.”

By William James