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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

London drops Tube mask rule as part of ‘living with the virus.’ Is the U.K. ready?

Passengers at London’s Waterloo station, one of the busiest transport hubs in the country. (Karla Adam/The Washington Post)
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LONDON — For the first time in almost two years, people in England woke up Thursday to no coronavirus restrictions. None. Zero. Zip. Yes, there’s advice and recommendations, but there are no mandates, no rules that if broken could result in fines.

The British government has lifted all remaining curbs, including the requirement to self-quarantine for those who test positive for the coronavirus — they are still encouraged to isolate, but it’s no longer unlawful if they don’t. Likewise, London transport officials Thursday dropped the requirement for commuters to wear masks on subways and buses, although they were recommended to wear them if they can.

It was the first day of the British government’s vision to let people “live with the virus.” Detailing the plans earlier in the week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that it was time to stop restricting “the liberties of the British people.”

There have been a few grand reopenings of England over the past two years, but this is the first time that all curbs are gone. This “Covid Freedom Day,” as some British media outlets have called it, was arguably less of a moment than other “freedom days,” with many of the remaining restrictions having been peeled away in recent months.

While the pandemic isn’t over, Johnson said, England can now deal with the virus “in a very different way, moving from government restrictions to personal responsibility.”

The coronavirus will now be treated more like the seasonal flu, he said.

Other nations in the United Kingdom — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are taking a more cautious approach.

At London’s Waterloo station, one of the busiest transport hubs in the country, a large number of people were voluntarily wearing masks Thursday — even though the penalty of £200 for not wearing one has been scrapped, along with all of the other fines associated with breaking the rules. Signs at the entrance to Waterloo, which was busy but not heaving, still thanked people for wearing masks “if you can, as a courtesy to others.”

The number of people hopping on London buses and “the Tube” has increased since the government scrapped its “work from home” guidance at the end of January. But figures are still far below pre-pandemic levels, with subway ridership at about 60 percent and bus usage around 75 percent of what they were at the beginning of 2020.

Many commuters Thursday wondered why the British government was dropping all of its restrictions now.

Anna Marriott, 43, who works for a charity, said that “to go gung-ho at this point is totally irresponsible, particularly for people who are vulnerable. I think they are dropping their guard when there could be more variants” on the horizon and when many parts of the world have yet to reach high vaccination levels.

“I think it’s political, not scientific, what’s happening now. He wants to declare some kind of victory on this to distract from multiple failings,” she said, referring to Johnson.

Alistair Allen, 26, a programmer wearing a blue mask, said that “advocating ‘personal responsibility’ is a very Tory line. If you’re an at-risk person, it’s other people who are now putting you at risk, and the ‘personal responsibility’ mind-set doesn’t account for that.”

He added that the lifting of all restrictions was “hard not to read as Boris Johnson doing something that he thinks people would like, and he’s not very popular right now.”

Johnson has seen his personal popularity ratings plummet following allegations that staff at Downing Street and other government offices held parties during lockdown. London’s Metropolitan Police are investigating 12 gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall for possible criminal violations.

Other commuters agreed it was time to remove all restrictions after a very, very long two years.

“It’s down to personal responsibility,” said John Lunt, an events organizer in his 60s. For him, that meant shoving a handful of masks into his jacket pocket on the way out the door. He plans to continue to wear masks on the trains and said he expects that people will probably have to get continual booster jabs. “That’s just the way we got to live,” he said.

Eugene Emerue, 46, a health-care worker, was among the majority of commuters who didn’t opt for a mask. He said he felt protected by having three vaccination shots, and he agreed that it was time to lift all restrictions.

“For how long can we lock the doors? If we don’t die of the virus, we die of hunger and a bad economy: Which one do we choose? It’s the best of the options,” he said, adding that it could take time to figure out the new norm.

“As time goes on, we will figure out how to live with it. It might not be easy at the moment,” he said.

Taylor Rettke, 29, a barista who was wearing a black mask, said that he thought people were “ready to live with the virus” in part because the situation had changed so dramatically in the past two years.

He said he wears a mask at work and on transport as a courtesy to others, but he did agree it was time to lift restrictions.

“I think people are so sick of restrictions that they are willing to take any alternative. If that means catching the virus moving on, I think people are definitely willing to do it. It’s been a very long two years,” he said.

“At the beginning, I was terrified of catching the virus, now I see it as an inevitability. That’s a huge shift,” Rettke said. “Even though anecdotal evidence is terrible evidence, it’s sort of the evidence we relate most to. At the beginning, we didn’t have any anecdotal evidence because no one knew anyone who had covid, so all we had was stats, and the stats were frightening.”

But now, he said, “60 to 70 percent of my friends have had covid, and anecdotally, it seems less threatening … that makes me more comfortable with it.”