Today was supposed to be the ‘Big Bang’ reopening as many senior civil servants described it. But it doesn’t feel like that. With our Prime Minister AND Chancellor self-isolating for 10 days after the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for Coronavirus, now seems like a completely reckless time to declare that we have defeated this virus. It is also clear that the wall of protection that vaccines have given us is not the be all and end all to total freedom.
Just two days ago, we recorded over 54,000 new cases of the virus, the highest figure since January – most of which now account for the Delta variant, first identified in India. Whilst this number may sound exponentially high, there isn’t a major cause for alarm just yet inside government. When cases were this high back in January, we were recording around 800-900 deaths per day. But two days ago? We recorded just 41 deaths. Although each death is, without question, a tragedy, the figure is comparable to the number of daily deaths that occur as a result of influenza, which highlights the collective achievements that we have made by simply getting vaccinated.
The Delta variant in itself emphatically underlines just how unpredictable this pandemic is, which probably also explains why even the buoyant Prime Minister himself has stopped labelling the easing of these restrictions as ‘irreversible.’ Scientists are becoming increasingly worried that if cases continue to rise as they are now, then the risk of a new variant is ever more likely – which probably explains why government insiders are watching the daily data like hawks. For instance, when we return to school in September, there could be up to 100,000 cases a day, or even 200,000 cases a day! The problem is that we just don’t know. The real conundrum is that many things are different this time around. Ask any well-informed scientist and they will not want to provide any detailed predictions on the next few weeks because putting it quite simply, this third wave is so different to the first and second waves, the two of which ultimately resulted in much more fatalities.
Then there’s the issue of masks. There is no question that the pandemic has exposed devolution and it’s realities; either promoting it wholly or questioning the point of it at all. Despite the four nations of the UK having their own devolved powers and political rhetoric in terms of when to impose or dispose of restrictions, one would argue that really, they have all ended up taking the same approach in the end and that their decisions have been largely similar. However, the issue of masks has been one key bone of contention; with Scotland and Wales opting to maintain the use of face coverings and the Westminster Government choosing to remove the mandate of them in England after July 19th. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has also said that masks will continue to be required on all Transport for London services after all legal limits are lifted – as well as the nationwide taxi firm Uber continuing their ‘No Mask No Ride’ policy. This could be one of those dilemma’s where Boris Johnson has simply got it wrong, and I wouldn’t be surprised if mask mandates were reimposed before too long given the rising infection levels.
The whole point of this phase of unlocking, ultimately, is that people will make their own decisions. It is important that we don’t underestimate how big these changes are in terms of getting rid of the ‘legal’ restrictions that have controlled so much of our lives for so long. However, all of these rules are being swept away when we’re in a wave – a rising third wave. So no matter how many enthusiastic politicians mark this as ‘Freedom Day,’ Covid is still such a huge thing and it may well be hugely disruptive for how people are living their lives even though the legal framework of restrictions have disappeared. And let’s not even get started on the so-called ‘pingdemic,’ where as a result of rising cases, hundreds of thousands of people are being told to self-isolate.
Something that has been intriguing to examine are the swathes of opinion polls that have been conducted to ask the public about their view of restrictions ending – and the overwhelming message is that the majority of us are up for keeping them. A YouGov Poll on the 6th July showed that 71% think masks should still be mandatory on public transport even after all restrictions have been eased. This is why that tight-rope shift back to making the decision on how we live our lives, whether we want to wear a mask on the bus for example, will be very interesting to see.
Today’s lifting of restrictions was most certainly a political decision; with the sense that if the government continued to extend restrictions on our way of life, then there would be an increasing resistance from Tory backbenchers who are known for preferring a more libertarian approach to tackling the pandemic. It is not only the public that will judge this decision for years to come, but also the rest of the world who will be analysing how the virus unfolds here on our shores. Remember, the UK is one of the first countries in the world to partake in a major unlocking that also has a rising epidemic of Covid cases paired with a high vaccine uptake, so other countries such as the US and European Nations will be watching and learning to take lessons from us. One article I recall reading on The New Statesman described this event as “the biggest decision of the Johnson administration yet,” emphasising just how significant this moment is.