'Freedom day' in England despite warnings as virus surges worldwide

London (AFP) –


Virtually all pandemic restrictions were lifted in England on Monday but "freedom day" was met with deep concern from scientists as coronavirus cases surge across the nation -- and around the world.

Fuelled by the more infection Delta variant, cases are spiking across the Asia-Pacific, parts of Africa and Europe, and even the heavily vaccinated United States.

Daily infection numbers have also climbed in Britain, topping 50,000.

But despite warnings and accusations of recklessness, restrictions on daily life were lifted in England, with no social distancing and mask requirements.

Sports stadia, cinemas, theatres and nightclubs were allowed to run at full capacity from 2300 GMT Sunday.

"I thought, well, we missed New Year's, so why not come out and celebrate?" said Nicola Webster Calliste, 29, outside a nightclub in Leeds, northern England.

"It's like a new chapter."

Covid-19 travel rules and self-isolation for close contacts remain in place.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- who is self-isolating after his health minister was infected -- has defended the move, dubbed "freedom day" by some media, but urged people to remain prudent.

The government has said that thanks to a rapid vaccination programme, the risks to the healthcare system are manageable.

But its stated approach of lifting curbs ahead of any winter surge of respiratory disease was marked by "moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity", said University of Bristol public health expert Gabriel Scally.

Scotland and Wales, whose devolved governments set their own health policy, said they would maintain the mask mandate among other curbs.

European nations including Spain and Greece have been forced to reimpose restrictions to battle new outbreaks recently.

- Lockdowns in Asia -

The coronavirus is known to have claimed more than four million lives since it emerged in late 2019 but, for some nations in the Asia-Pacific, the worst is still ahead of them.

Indonesia has in recent days overtaken India and Brazil as the global Covid-19 hotspot, with its daily death toll hitting a record 1,205 on Friday.

There are fears people travelling for Eid festivities could spread the virus further, and authorities in the vast Muslim-majority country beefed up roadblocks on Monday for the start of the holidays.

Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, was on Monday placed under partial lockdown, with millions more people in the nation's south ordered to stay home, a day after the nation recorded its highest daily caseload.

Although Australia has enjoyed far lower case numbers than most nations, it is also struggling with outbreaks in its two biggest cities.

Melbourne extended a lockdown on Monday, meaning roughly 12 million Australians will remain under some form of stay-at-home orders.

In Myanmar, where hospitals are empty because of a long-running strike against the military junta, volunteers are going house-to-house to collect bodies for burials.

"We are running our service without resting," Than Than Soe told AFP at the bustling office of her volunteer group.

- US surge -

Worries have also grown in the United States, where despite a majority of the adult population receiving at least one shot and months of declining spread, Covid-19 cases have soared by a 135 percent over the past two weeks.

Los Angeles, which has seen a sharp spike, renewed its mask mandate, and the US surgeon general warned Sunday that other areas may have to do the same.

In West Hollywood nightclub Revolver, clubbers were warned in the queue: no mask, no entry.

It frustrated the fully vaccinated at the venue, who said they should not have to suffer because of those refusing to get shots.

"Why should we feel responsible for individuals who don't want to protect their own body?" said Anthony Bawn, a 36-year-old screenwriter.

"If they force me to (wear a mask), I'm going to go home."

Under the dark global cloud, Japan is readying for the opening of the virus-delayed 2020 Olympics on Friday in Tokyo.

Widely opposed by the Japanese public because of the pandemic, the Olympics will be staged mostly without spectators.