Freedom Day in England? Drastic lifting of lockdown restrictions

Today is being labelled by some as Freedom Day or Free-dumb Day, here in England, as the government has lifted remaining lockdown restrictions concerning face mask wearing, social movement and assembly.

In what is being called an experiment or a gamble by some, the government is acting knowing that cases will sharply rise even faster and are relying on the vaccination programme to stop too many people ending up in hospital or dying, as well as leaving it to local authorities and the public to largely manage themselves, as best they can. There are still national self-isolation and quarantine rules for those who get or are in contact with Covid-19 and for travellers from certain countries – but these too, are being watered down.

The cases in the UK having been increasing significantly, recently, due to the so-called ‘Delta variant’ strain and the previous ending of the stricter lockdown measures that prevented indoor gatherings, with daily cases now hitting over 50,000 a day, recently. Such was the concern, ‘Freedom Day’ was delayed for a month, from the planned date of 21st June. The number who are actually hospitalised or dying of Covid-19 in England is relatively low compared to last year’s disaster, as a reported 68.3% of the population of England have been fully vaccinated and 88% part vaccinated and this is reducing spread and number of serious symptoms. Antibodies from having had the virus and hospitals improving their treatment of patients is also likely reducing numbers of serious cases.

Many scientists and members of the public are concerned that the abrupt end to these restrictions, at this time, is going to accelerate the spread and, some fear that 50,000 cases a day could become 100,000 cases or higher within weeks or months. The National Health System, in England, is experiencing a lot of pressure from influx of patients whose treatments were delayed due to the pandemic, as well as staff burnout and, also, staff shortage as they are being required to self-isolate or quarantine. The NHS was already understaffed and overwhelmed, prior to the pandemic. There are fears that sharp rises in cases could lead to hospitalisation levels that become unmanageable and this could even lead to the need for return to restrictions just to protect the health system from breaking down.

The government is recommending continuation of some public anti-contagion measures, such as wearing face masks in indoor gathering spaces and social distancing but no longer making it compulsory. They have ended, completely, guidance on working from home. The drastic relaxation may affect vaccination take-up and observance of the rules that remain in place, if a culture of resistance or indifference grows, encouraged by ‘Freedom Day’.

Some local authorities, such as the mayor of London, are using their limited powers to make it compulsory to wear face masks on public transport within their areas but not all authorities have such powers. Some retail store companies say that they will insist staff and customers continue to wear masks, whilst others say they will recommend it but not insist from customers, to avoid their staff receiving abuse. It is hard to see how such a piecemeal approach can be effective or fair on customer service staff.

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as devolved administrations that have control over their own Covid rules, are not removing all rules and face mask wearing and social distancing restrictions remain as do some restrictions on how many people can gather indoors. They may be taking heed of the experience in Netherlands, where most restrictions were lifted on 26th June, as cases fell, only for the government to backtrack soon after, as cases increased from 1,000 to 7,000 a day, by reimposing social distancing rules, meaning the closure of nightclubs and earlier closing for cafes and restaurants.

A difficult balance must be struck and the public need to be convinced. In France, rising cases has moved the government to make it mandatory for health workers to be vaccinated and gone as far as a plan to require a health pass for access to restaurants and cafes, either showing vaccination or a negative Covid test. Whilst polls show the majority of the French population are supportive of such measures, on Saturday, July 17th, over 100,000 protestors marched in major cities in opposition to what they see as an imposition on civil liberties and effectively, a compulsory vaccination programme for anyone who wishes to participate in social life.

A safer approach and one that protects the national health service, in England, would have been to wait until a higher proportion of the public were fully vaccinated and to retain some national anti-contagion measures such as face masks on public transport and for indoor meeting places and retaining social distancing and work from home guidance.

However, the government have put pressure on themselves through promises of a freedom day and have lost popularity for the handling of the pandemic, including through high profile cases of ministers or advisers breaking their own rules and, they seem keen on diverting responsibility from themselves. They have also been under pressure from some business lobbies and other campaign groups to end restrictions. Unfortunately, they are not giving sufficient weight, it seems, to the National Health Service, which will be under immense pressure again and more people will needlessly die or be seriously unwell. How this experiment plays out will likely greatly depend on the number and speed of the take-up of vaccinations in the coming weeks, how much support the NHS receives and, perhaps, the responsible actions of the English public.

Returning to a retail job and feelings of social vulnerability after the UK pandemic lockdown – interview from England

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), Gerald Brazell, Flickr

A young woman living on the south coast of England shared some experiences of returning to working in a bookshop on April 12, 2021, as part of the phased re-opening of the country from a partial lockdown. She talks about difficulties with anxiety, depression, home life and early experiences.

Returning to work after 4 months in lock-down came as a shock. Everyone who had been shut away must have felt it, but when teamed with social anxiety and depression, it had an additional edge. However, perhaps surprisingly, the readjustment period was relatively quick. After only a couple of 9-5 days in the shop, it felt like I’d never been away, but not necessarily in a good way; not in the welcome-return-to-old-company sort of way. The joys of being back in public for me were weak at best, and the familiarity was that of an ache so persistent you come to forget its impact after a while. Its absence is alien. It becomes a painful part of you.

At first, it felt overwhelming to be faced with people again, and to have no choice but to deal with queries and issues as they arose, to look people in the eye, to attempt to effectively communicate, get the right tone and intonation, right expression, all through the barrier of a mask. Lock-down had acted as a cocoon, creating a situation in which you didn’t have to socialise or communicate, and you didn’t have to feel guilty or weird about not doing so. Suddenly, I had to be in public again, with no escape. No more enforced solitude. It was back to the reality of life with anxiety, and the tensions associated with this environment rapidly returned.

I had forgotten what it felt like to be talked down to. While tucked away inside, strangers really hadn’t had the opportunity to make me feel worthless for my position of status, and without even realising it, my self worth had risen through not being subjected to what is run-of-the-mill in customer service. It is considered part of the job to have customers angry about the benign, to be aggressive when you don’t have what they want, to treat you with casual contempt, to bark at you and demand things from you, a general rudeness that insidiously seeps into your everyday.

Social judgement was another sensation that had faded into obscurity over lockdown. How you presented yourself, what clothes you wore and how much they were worth, your posture and gait, your accent and your delivery, your vocabulary and projection. It had been so long since these elements came into play that, for a while, I forgot that mine were not ‘right’, and that peoples’ response to your mere existence could dehumanise so subtly yet so completely.

To be socially dismissed on sight was something I had come to forget the sensation of, and there was a strange resignation towards returning to such a dynamic. In this world, there are those who have the position and the authority to diminish others who exist on a different plain. They are the apex predators, and society offers no way of escaping this social hierarchy and no way of protecting yourself when you are the gazelle, your worth extending only as far as how you can serve them.

Of course, for the most part, people don’t intentionally set out to implicitly degrade or devalue, and for a lot of people these micro-expressions and aggressions are water off a ducks back. It is only when you read every movement of the brow, aversion of eyes, tightness of voice – a hypersensitivity that comes with anxiety – that they begin to choke a fragile sense of self like ivy on an oak. Society is not designed for us, people who drive through a storm with the windows open, no protective barrier between ourselves and the battering elements. We have no choice but to subdue the persistent onslaught that is everyday life with medication, both prescribed and self-prescribed. But this is no cause for complaint; as we are reminded everyday… that’s life.

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I’ve found that looking after things other than yourself, be it plants or animals, can make it much easier to experience feelings of love, compassion and caring, which can so often get lost when focusing solely on yourself, when you don’t necessarily want to treat yourself with love. Self-care is something I’ve struggled with, often even feeling selfish to take time to look after myself mentally or physically. Plants and pets are dependent on you for their survival, to grow and thrive, and it is rewarding not only making other living things happy, but as they give a lot back.

Plants cheer up the environment, making it feel full of life when it might otherwise feel bleak or stale, but they also improve air quality (especially peace lilies, which remove toxins from the air). A lot of plants don’t need much tending to be happy, so they can be a great place to start if wanting to cultivate that ability to care for something outside of yourself. Also, seeing a beautiful plant wilt if you leave it without water for too long, and perk up once watered, is a great reminder of how little can really improve life in a major way. Gardening is great for mindfulness, being calming and grounding, but for those who don’t have an outside space like me, house plants are a perfect way to still connect with nature every now and then.

Animals rely on you to deal with all their needs, from feeding to grooming to walking, and they are the one thing that will push me to go outside or get up in the mornings when anxiety is really hitting, because their quality of life depends on me. Not only are they motivating to do the things I sometimes dread, but they offer a great deal of support. They are sensitive to your moods and will comfort you when you are low. They also cause me a lot of joy and are constantly making me smile; without the dogs, exercise, laughter, nurturing, and physical closeness would all be very difficult to make myself do.

I have always loved nature and animals. Somehow, they seem more significant than a lot of the things in this world. Animals are uncomplicated, and nature just gets on with it. They are the perfect reminded of what actually matters in life, when it’s flooded with anxiety and fear.

Arts and crafts have always been a good way to centre and soothe myself when I’m stressed. Crafts like knitting have actually been proven to reduce stress. The repetition and focus on the tactile activity at hand is perfect for people who have anxiety or are restless and need to find something to focus on. I also find it hard to just watch TV and relax, so having something to ‘do’ helps me to feel like I’m doing something productive.

Live music is one of the few events where I don’t experience high levels of anxiety in a public space, which is ironic considering it’s crowded and noisy which are two elements I typically avoid. It’s the fact that when you’re in the audience, no one is looking at you, and you’re not expected to talk or socialise; it’s all about watching the band and a shared appreciation of their music. The noise and immersion has actually become something I love, as it takes me out of my own mind for a couple of hours, and acts as a release from all the pent-up fear and stress.

Sometimes people will try and engage or get you to dance, but the mood always seems to be good humoured. It’s not something I would have considered as being good for those with social anxiety, but it has been a great help for me, and could be a good step towards facing intense situations without the expectation put on you to talk or perform.

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I suffered from Selective Mutism, so I was talkative around a very small family unit or close friends, but completely mute in any situation that was unfamiliar or threatening. I was then homeschooled between the ages of 11-16, so it’s difficult to say how much character developed over this time.

I do experience some of the effects of Selective Mutism. It is known as a children’s disorder, as people supposedly ‘grow out of it’. I think people just learn to adapt with it and ‘present’ as normal. Often, if I feel like I can’t make my voice heard, I will feel my throat tighten and I was emotionally shut down and zone out.

I would describe selective mutism as a physical manifestation of your anxious thoughts. The tension causes your throat to constrict to the point where you feel like you physically can’t speak. It’s debilitating, and completely shapes the way you experience the world, much like looking in through glass. People learn to tune you out and you become virtually invisible. Homeschooling was a last resort. I wouldn’t say it was hugely positive, but I don’t know where the alternative would have lead me.

AA, 2021