I am no fan of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But I would not like to be in his shoes at this juncture in time.
Earlier this week, Johnson and his Cabinet took the decision to lift all restrictions put in place to fight the coronavirus pandemic effective July 19. Come ‘Freedom Day’ as some have dubbed it, it will be a return to life as it was before COVID-19 took hold and claimed the lives of almost 130,000 people in the UK according to the Government’s own figures.
It is a wise or a foolhardy decision, depending on your own personal outlook of the glass being half empty or full.
Either way, giving the good people of England back their freedom is no easy task — and certainly not at a time when the Delta variant, first discovered in India, has seen new coronavirus infections case rate hit the 27,000 mark daily. A month ago, new infections were below 2,000. The government’s own advisers estimate that the rate of infection is doubling every nine days and, come that July 19 date, there would well be 100,000 cases daily.
So, is that the right time to lift restrictions?
Come Freedom Day, England will ditch legal restrictions on gatherings such as weddings and funerals, scrap social distancing rules in most scenarios, and there will be mandatory end to face coverings. People too will return to the workplace, no more pecking on computers in pyjamas, and there will be no need for people to check into pubs and eateries by using their National Health Service (NHS) locator app on smartphones.
The day after Johnson announced his decision, his Education and Health Secretaries also announced an end to other restrictions. Only pupils who have COVID-19 will have to isolate — not their entire class or bubble, depending on how the school set things up, and there will be an end to the need to isolate on returning from foreign trips as long as you have had both jabs of three vaccines approved for use in the UK.
The concept of mandatory domestic COVID-19 certification for large events, so-called “vaccine passports,” has also been dropped, and a new regime for the fully-vaccinated contacts of those who have tested positive, as well as for children, will also be introduced.
“We must be honest with ourselves that if we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer, and by the school holidays, we must ask ourselves when will we be able to return to normal?” Johnson said.
In essence, the PM said that we will just have to learn to live with COVID-19, just like we have learnt to live with the flu.
I will admit that the prospect of Freedom Day is very enticing indeed. How marvellous will it be to be able to experience “normality” once more — but the memories of so many horrible and dark days, along with family, friends and former colleagues lost to coronavirus won’t go away.
Besides, with cases surging once more, just how demob happy can Brits be?
Johnson said he will continue to wear a mask in crowded places when meeting people he doesn’t know to protect others, “as a matter of simple courtesy.”
While face masks will no longer be required on public transport, a YouGov poll taken after Johnson’s announcement found that some 70 per cent still favour their use on public transport. Clearly these are respondents who know what it is like to shake, rattle and roll regularly on the crowded London Underground, where Mind the Gap has taken on a new meaning altogether since the advent of coronavirus and social distancing rules. The same poll found that 60 per cent think they should be mandatory while shopping.
The fact that right now, two-thirds of UK adults are fully vaccinated, and 85 per cent with at least one dose, made the decision to go ahead with Freedom Day possible.
But it is also at odds with other nations’ approaches. Last week too, the UAE became the world leader in vaccinations per capita, yet it is more cautious than the laissez-faire approach adopted by the Johnson government.
“Of course the pandemic is not over,” Health Secretary Savid Javid — he has been referred to as “Jab-id” in some London tabloids — told the Commons. “The virus is still with us, it hasn’t gone away. The risk of a dangerous new variant remains real … but we cannot put our lives on hold forever.”
There is also the danger that by easing the restrictions in England, Johnson will be at odds with leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where health is a devolved power. It might seem appealing to drop restrictions, but should cases surge in Scotland and Wales, where nationalist sentiment is surging, then he opens himself up to claims of abandonment and ignoring the needs of the other nations in the UK.
Welsh Health Minister Eluned Morgan said her government would be “driven by the data … rather than any political deadlines set out artificially,” at a briefing after the English measures were announced.
The Scottish government has set a much later target date of August 9 for getting rid of most restrictions and say that face coverings will remain in face coverings after that date too.
Personally, I am excited at the prospect of being able to move freely — I am double-jabbed — but cautious too that those Delta rates are rising.
We cannot live in a bubble forever. But bursting it seems so daring. Maybe coronavirus has infected every one of us with a loss of confidence.