So here we are. Yesterday – Monday 19th July – was ‘Freedom Day’. The UK lifted its remaining Covid restrictions. Chief among these, it is no longer a legal requirement to wear a mask. We have shifted to a new period of ‘personal responsibility’, where mask-wearing is recommended but left to individual discretion.
Historically, I’ve written these ‘Life under lockdown’ entries in diary format, collating my thoughts on a (more or less) fortnightly basis. However, all my feelings have come crashing together over the past two or three days. So rather than presenting my thoughts in chronological order, I’m going to subdivide them into specific topics. Here goes …
What about the kids?
Today is the last day of the school year for both Toby and Kara. (Isaac finished last week.) It’s a particularly big day for the former, as he concludes his primary school career. In September, he will head off not only to a new school, but to a completely different one from the classmates he has known for the past seven years.
This really should have been a time of celebration for any child in year six or in the exam years 11 and 13. Discos, parties, proms. The ritual signing of blank white t-shirts. Whatever the form of commemoration, many of these are no longer options in a Covid world where safety is paramount. Many kids aren’t even able to come into school to say farewell because they are Covid-positive or isolating.
Similarly, many school leavers or university graduates face uncertain futures in an uncertain job market.
It’s sad. These are milestone events in a child or young adult’s life that cannot be deferred to a later date. They are simply lost for evermore.
Can we be trusted with personal responsibility?
If the final of Euro 2000 was a dress rehearsal for our new world of personal responsibility, I think we failed. Quite spectacularly so.
England supporters throwing trees around Leicester Square. Forcibly attempting to gain entry to Wembley without tickets. Attacking Italian fans. A general lack of control brought on by too much alcohol too early in the day.
And, lest we forget, the Darwin Award candidate who thought it would be a wheeze to insert a lit flare in his own backside.
But it’s okay, because our political leaders trust the British public to exercise personal responsibility and caution. (Or, at the very least, they have created the conditions under which they will blame that same public if Covid spirals out of control in the coming weeks.)
Yes, I know most people aren’t this stupid. But equally, the impact of a few hundred idiots will be massively outweighed by millions of mostly sensible people letting their guard down a little bit too much. It’s only natural that after so long living constrained lives that people will want to enjoy and celebrate their freedom. But at what cost? No one really knows what the ‘right’ amount of caution is.
And that’s my problem.
Asking people to take personal responsibility works when you define parameters for responsible behaviour. That’s why we have speed limits on roads. It’s why we had a two-metre rule for social distancing. Simply telling people to enjoy their freedom but to do so cautiously is like dropping someone in the middle of a minefield and telling them to make their way out carefully without a map or a minesweeper. Sooner or later, someone is going to die.
We’re not ready for personal responsibility. That’s why we’re supposed to have a government rather than a state of anarchy.
Data, not dates
When the government first laid out its roadmap for exiting lockdown, ‘data not dates’ was the slogan du jour.
I would argue – and I’m confident that I’m far from alone here – that their approach has been the exact opposite of this. Dates, not data.
Let’s look at some of the data, shall we?
As of Sunday, the seven-day average for new Covid cases in the UK stood at 45,000 per day. This isn’t far off the January peak of nearly 60,000. More relevantly, the number is rising rapidly, despite the vaccination programme. On 18th June, the average was 8,600; on 18th May, 1,900. That’s a 24-fold increase over the past two months. This doesn’t feel like a country that has Covid under control. Far from it.
The picture is different when you look at numbers of deaths. For sure, the vaccination programme has weakened the link between new cases and deaths – but it hasn’t completely broken it, as some have claimed. As of Sunday, the seven-day average for daily deaths was 40. This compares favourably with a peak of over 1,200 per day in late January. But as recently as 14th June, the daily average was nine. That equates to a more than four-fold increase in the past five weeks. And while the number is still low, it’s important to remember that death is a lagging metric. The number is rising rapidly, albeit from a low base – and it will get worse before it gets better.
Let’s also consider some of the more qualitative data we’re seeing. We have NHS hospitals cancelling urgent surgeries because their ICUs are already full of Covid patients. Over 1,200 medics and scientists worldwide have signed a letter condemning the UK’s strategy. So has New Zealand – and, let’s face it, if any nation is qualified to do this, it’s a country which has fewer total Covid deaths (26) than the current UK daily average (40).
However, pop group Right Said Fred – who had a couple of hits (including the appropriately titled Deeply Dippy) in the 1990s before fading into despairing obscurity – have said we don’t need to listen to the experts. So that’s alright, then.
Isn’t ‘freedom’ supposed to feel, well, liberating?
As a family, we visited Alton Towers last weekend. It was our second trip there this year: the first was at the end of May.
In May, the UK was in the middle of its unlocking process. I was a little nervous about visiting a busy theme park but actually the experience was a positive one. Mask compliance was almost universal.
This time – a mere 24-48 hours before the full relaxation of restrictions, I was much more anxious. With case numbers rising rapidly and worries about people deciding to stop wearing their masks early, we did even consider cancelling our trip, but decided on balance to go ahead with it. Whether that proves to be a wise decision is something we will know only with the benefit of hindsight. But, on balance, we were okay with it.
As it turned out, the park was remarkably quiet for a weekend in late July – I don’t know why; you can draw your own conclusions – but I will say I was a little surprised by how many people continued to wear their masks. That gave me a little hope for the coming months that we may still navigate our way out of this situation.
But my point is this. Surely a trip like this should feel safer in the days immediately before restrictions are lifted versus two months previously? The fact that it felt less safe says something about me, yes, but speaks volumes about the wider context.
There is also something not quite right that the new guidelines on international travel have essentially rendered our summer holiday to France next month impossible. For us, ‘Freedom Day’ has heralded a significant reduction in our freedom of movement.
There’s something not quite right here.
The arrival of Freedom Day was supposed to be a crescendo; a triumphant march back into normality with Covid firmly under control. Instead it feels more like an apologetic shuffle, with Boris Johnson urging us to exercise caution with our new found freedoms.
Colour me underwhelmed.
My personal experience of Freedom Day
Anyhow, Freedom Day arrived at last. It’s been accompanied by some kind of anti-lockdown rally in Parliament Square where topless men with sunburnt backs have been protesting against something – I’m still not sure entirely what or why – and calling for Boris Johnson’s arrest. (There’s an expression about mad dogs, Englishmen and the midday sun, isn’t there?)
To be honest, I don’t have the energy to care about this overly. I’ve been more interested in my own experience of Freedom Day. Which, to be honest, felt much like any other day. I’m still working at home. (My employer won’t be asking people to return to the office until at least September.) I popped into our local supermarket in the morning to discover that an overwhelming majority of customers were still wearing masks.
(In fairness, I should point out that our demographics are quite skewed, as we over-index significantly on elderly and middle-class people. It’s likely that other communities may have had very different experiences.)
I’m not going to begrudge people deciding to stop wearing their masks. They’ve been told they don’t have to any more, even if it is still recommended. Personally, I will continue to wear mine because I see it as being considerate to others who are more anxious or vulnerable than me, but we each make our own judgement calls on this one. I’ll save my criticism for the powers that be instead.
A two-speed world
And that brings me to one final point.
One of the values I keep trying to drum into our kids is empathy. Not everyone shares the same situation as us. As a family, we’re pretty well off. Both adults double-jabbed and in secure jobs (or as secure as anyone’s job can be these days). All five of us in good health, although as an asthmatic and a diabetic I’m ‘vulnerable’.
Not everyone is the same. There’s a large number of people who remain at significant risk due to them (or a family member) having underlying conditions which mean they are shielding. Even during the height of lockdown, a trip to the shops was a terrifying prospect for them. Now imagine what the same scenario feels like when half the people you encounter may now be maskless. It must be terrifying, like playing Russian Roulette but where someone else has their finger on the trigger.
These people will remain mostly indoors, minimising contact with the outside world. Which means they will be easily forgotten, or worse still ridiculed by others simply for trying to protect themselves to the maximum extent possible.
We are in danger of creating a two-speed world, where the liberties enjoyed by 90% of the population come at a heavy price for the forgotten 10%. We cannot – must not – allow this to happen.
One final wish
I genuinely hope this turns out to be my last ever ‘Life under lockdown’ entry. I really do.
As much as anyone else, I want this pandemic to end and for us not to need the reintroduction of any restrictions. However, I fear this is a hiatus rather than an ending.
As much as I enjoy being right, this one time I really want to be wrong.
Previous ‘Life under lockdown’ entries