As nightclubs across England threw open their doors for the first time in 16 months and people embraced on crowded dance floors into the dawn on Monday, the nation that had imposed one of the most stringent and longest lockdowns in the world removed nearly all legal restrictions on social interactions.
But “Freedom Day,” as the long-desired and long-delayed milestone has been labeled in the British media, is a moment fraught with risk and no small amount of confusion.
Case numbers have continued to surge, reaching levels seen during the peak of Britain’s previous virus wave in January — though with more than half the population fully vaccinated, and particularly comprehensive coverage among older and more vulnerable people, the numbers of deaths and hospitalizations have been a fraction of those in past waves.
Even as legal restrictions were lifted, hundreds of thousands of people were undergoing 10-day quarantines as part of the National Health Service’s test, trace and isolate program, many prompted by an official app that automatically “pings” users who have come into close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus.
More than 500,000 people were pinged in the first week of July — approaching 1 percent of England’s population — and the rise in cases since is likely only to have pushed the figure higher.
Only hours before the rules were lifted, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was himself forced to go into self-isolation after his government’s health secretary tested positive. Mr. Johnson had originally said he would take part in a pilot program that would allow him to avoid quarantine, but he reversed course within hours after a furious public backlash.
The cascade of isolations has begun to cause staff shortages in pubs, restaurants and other workplaces. The London Underground’s Metropolitan line was closed Saturday evening because so many staff members were pinged by the app.
In a video message recorded at the prime minister’s country house, Chequers, Mr. Johnson urged caution even as he said it was time to move away from government rules to a new era of personal responsibility.
“If we don’t do it now we’ve got to ask ourselves, when will we ever do it?” he said, adding that it would be a greater risk to reopen in winter, when the virus would spread more easily and health systems would be under greater pressure.
“But we’ve got to do it cautiously. We’ve got to remember that this virus is sadly still out there. Cases are rising — we can see the extreme contagiousness of the Delta variant.”
Despite a robust vaccination program, the government has resisted linking vaccination status with restrictions like those recently announced in France.
Starting in August, anyone in that country without a “health pass” showing they have been vaccinated or recently tested negative will not be admitted to restaurants, cafes or movie theaters, and they will not be able to travel long distances by train.
In England, it will fall to businesses to set their own policies and individuals to decide what level of risk they are comfortable with.
Face coverings are no longer required by law, although the government still “expects and recommends” them in some enclosed spaces. Patrons can once again crowd into pubs. There are no limits on the size of gatherings, allowing large weddings and funeral services to resume. Concerts, sporting events and theaters can all go back to business as usual — should they choose to do so.
The move is meant to help lift a battered economy, but the British pound fell to a three month-low in early trading on Monday as investors watched England’s experiment warily.
And not all of Britain is moving at the same pace.
Scotland has allowed pubs and restaurants to reopen but limits on outdoor meetings remain, the return of workers to offices has been delayed and face coverings will still be mandatory.
Restrictions are set to be relaxed in Northern Ireland on July 26 and in Wales on Aug. 7.
But the British public has grown used to sudden shifts in pandemic policy.
Even after Mr. Johnson promised that, this time, the easing of restrictions would be “irreversible,” there was already talk in government circles about possible restrictions in the fall.