You would be forgiven for not feeling the elation that we would have expected to come with ‘Freedom Day’. The long-awaited 19th of July, formerly 21st June, is upon us, but with a melting pot of mixed messages, different measures across the devolved nations and rapidly rising cases, it is hard to feel the relief we might have anticipated.
The end of coronavirus restrictions in England has brought considerable confusion for the public. In his recent press conference, the Prime Minister happily announced that nightclubs would re-open and social distancing would be scrapped while at the same time urging the need for “extreme caution” given the pandemic is not yet over. The Government has had a difficult few weeks, with both the resignation of the former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock and the pilot scheme fiasco that would have allowed the Prime Minister and Chancellor to avoid their isolation, undermining their credibility on coronavirus restrictions.
Regional differences have only compounded this confusion, especially with regard to face masks. For those living in London, the supposed ending of the mask mandate has been blocked by the Mayor who has made the continued wearing of masks on public transport in London a condition of carriage. Other Metro Mayors such as Andy Burnham have followed suit with strong recommendations that people remain wearing masks on public transport in their city regions.
Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are charting their own, more cautious, path out of lockdown with vastly differing rules. Private companies have also taken matters into their own hands, with Uber confirming that masks will still be required in all their vehicles while Waterstones, Sainsburys, Waitrose and Tesco will continue to strongly encourage customers to wear masks. These continued restrictions are difficult for the public at large to keep track of and give the overall impression that now is not the time to move on.
Following the previous unlocking, cases are now surging toward 100,000 per day and tens of millions of adults are yet to be fully vaccinated. With the rapid spread of the virus and the regular pinging of the NHS app a new constant in our work and social lives, “normality” seems a distant memory even with today’s push towards freedom.
The Government is clearly banking on the power of the vaccine, whilst also accepting that there will be more hospitalisations and deaths as a result of this unlocking. In a recent video the Prime Minister landed on the argument “if not now than when?” Referring to the opportunity presented by the summer months and the benefit of having millions of school kids on summer holidays from this week, some would argue that his timing is right.
A continuing lockdown has a wide-ranging impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the nation, as well as the huge disruption to the healthcare of conditions other than coronavirus. This is without mentioning the fiscal impact of smothering many key industries, such as tourism and hospitality. However, if the Government finds the NHS can no longer handle the impact of the Delta variant of the virus and stricter measures need to be re-introduced it could see Johnson’s favourability and “vaccine boost” vanish very quickly.
It remains to be seen whether this unlocking will somehow bypass mass hospitalisations numerous enough to cripple the NHS, but if it succeeds, and the country copes with the virus, many countries may look to follow suit. If not, we’ll be the poster child for a premature and failed unlocking, and a cautionary tale to the rest of the world.