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.