Monday was Freedom Day in England. It was a day when all of the pandemic measures were finally lifted, a time for rejoicing and a day to acknowledge that things are getting back to “normal”. As if.
Sure, there were the young and hip who had been pent up for so long, they couldn’t wait to count down the final minutes of social distancing and let their hair down, party like it was 2020 all over again, and drop their masks for a quick snog on the dance floor as the hands of clocks across England turned midnight.
If this was a fairy tale, when the clocks struck midnight Cinderella would be turned back into a lowly maid, her coach and horses turn to a pumpkin and mice, and her glass slipper well and truly lost.
But for all of the wait, there is worry.
At a time when political leaders in the United Kingdom were supposed to be making the most of photo ops and celebrating the opening up of business after 18 months of various forms of lockdowns and restrictions, three of the most senior people responsible for fighting the pandemic were forced into self-isolation.
Self-isolating cabinet members
Savid Javid, the Health Secretary tested positive for coronavirus on Friday last. He had been in close contact with Cabinet colleagues including the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak then.
So it was little wonder that they too were pinged by the track and trace app from the National Health Services (NHS) warning them of the need to self-isolate for 10 days.
Across the UK, an estimated 800,000 people have been notified by the app that they need to self-isolate for the mandatory 10-day period — so many people that it is now being referred to as a “pingdemic” — leading to business closures and slowdowns in manufacturing and logistics.
Imagine then the ire when Johnson and Sunak were both pinged but declined to self-isolate, arguing that they were part of a pilot programme that included 10 Downing Street. That was early Sunday morning. By noon, they had reversed course and said they would indeed be isolating, working remotely for 10 days.
The very thought that once more, senior government ministers would be telling the British public to do one thing while they themselves did the exact opposite was enough to light up Twitter and create a perfect storm that they could not ignore nor endure for longer than three hours.
Freedom Day in the UK
As it was, the Prime Minister, who vaunted July 19 as Freedom Day, saw it come from isolating from his country home in Chequers, northwest of London.
It was a day when all restrictions were supposed to be lifted in England. Because health is a devolved power, separate lockdown and coronavirus restrictions apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
And Freedom Day, according to Johnson, was only possible because more that 87 per cent of adults in the UK had received at least one dose of three vaccinations on offer to all over 18 years of age. At least 67 per cent of all Brits have had both doses of the vaccine.
But high vaccination rates do not necessarily compute with low coronavirus infection rate. The Delta variant, first discovered in India, has resulted in a gradual rise of infection rates in the UK — leading to that “pingdemic”.
On the day when Johnson oversaw the lifting of pandemic measures, some 50,000 cases were recorded across the UK and, worryingly, hospitalisation rates were also increasing. Modelling suggests there could be 100,000 cases daily very soon.
And even when Freedom Day rolled around, there was still a sting in the tail. The end of restrictions? Not quite. Johnson announced that anyone wanting to visit a nightclub from September — so much for that midnight party last Sunday — would have to show proof of being fully vaccinated with both jabs.
That measure was enough to have libertarian MPs in the Conservative ranks howl in outrage that this was a movement towards COVID passports by stealth. And if Johnson was going to reimpose coronavirus measures in one area, it would be a very slippery slope indeed to COVID passports being needed to go out for a meal or indeed shopping.
This great opening up also coincided with another broadside fired by Dominic Cummings, once Johnson chief adviser and right-hand man during those torrid early days of the pandemic. If anyone knows Johnson’s thinking then, it is Cummings.
In his first TV interview, Cummings said Johnson held out on reimposing COVID restrictions because “the people who are dying are essentially all over 80.”
Cummings also told the BBC that Johnson had been determined to go to see the Queen in person, despite people in 10 Downing Street already falling ill with Covid in March 2020. Downing Street denies the account.
In WhatsApp messages, shared with the BBC, that were sent to aides in mid October, Johnson appears to say: “I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on COVID fatalities. The median age is 82 — 81 for men 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get COVID and live longer. Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4 per cent) and of those virtually all survive.
“And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate.”
Let’s be clear: Cummings has his own agenda when it comes to naming and shaming. But he was there and seemingly has the written texts and documents that would appear to support his version of events.
Freedom Day was supposed to go far smoother. Instead, it seems as if the first lifting of coronavirus restrictions is fraught with political difficulties for the Prime Minister, isolating at Chequers. It’s not quite the image of strong leadership and recovery he wants to portray.