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Freedom Day? Not free from Covid, that’s for sure

Freedom Day? Not free from Covid, that’s for sure

Monday 19 July 2021

Boris Johnson certainly did not envisage spending this long-awaited moment of liberation in self-isolation. But the virus is still rampant – and will remain so until there is a truly global strategy to beat it


In the final, much-cherished scene of Blackadder Goes Forth, the guns fall suddenly silent as the men prepare to go over the top. “Maybe the war’s over,” says Private Baldrick. “Maybe it’s peace?”

Hugh Laurie’s Lieutenant George joins in: “Oh, hurrah! The big knobs have got round the table and yanked the iron out of the fire!” Cue Captain Darling: “Thank God! We lived through it! The Great War… 1914 to 1917!”

So: welcome to 1917 in the great struggle against Covid. Today – “Freedom Day” – was always meant to have something of the flavour of the Armistice about it. With Covid mostly beaten, all remaining restrictions would be lifted; Boris Johnson would deliver a rousing speech about ancestral liberty; and a grateful nation would rejoice (so ministers hoped) as it returned to something approaching normal.

The remaining Covid rules have indeed been lifted today. Should you be so disposed, you can now get married at the bar of a nightclub, with as many guests as you like, take all of them to visit your grandmother in her care home tomorrow morning, and then top things off with a mask-burning party. All these, and other liberties, have been restored to you: talk about living your best life.

The slight snag is that Covid doesn’t care about the government “road map”, nor about heated arguments over English freedoms, nor anything much, really, other than spreading as fast and aggressively as it can. And, regrettably, it continues to do so.

When the prime minister first envisaged “Freedom Day” back in February, as he unveiled the plan for exit from lockdown, I very much doubt that he expected to spend it in self-isolation – or that his chancellor and health secretary would be doing the same.

This indignity was compounded by the sheer fiasco of yesterday’s screeching U-turn on the question of how he and Rishi Sunak would handle their recent contact with Sajid Javid, who has tested positive for Covid. Initially, it was announced that the PM and chancellor would avoid self-isolation by taking part in a “pilot scheme” involving daily tests and a curtailed social regime. This arrangement lasted for a grand total of two hours and 37 minutes.

After political clamour and a firestorm on social media, Johnson and Sunak caved in and agreed to observe the self-isolation rules that apply to everyone else. In one of his inimitable cheeky-chappy videos, the PM claimed that “we did look briefly” at the pilot scheme (code for: “we fully intended to claim special status because we are very grand”) but had concluded that it was “far more important that everybody sticks to the same rules” (by which he meant: “we suddenly remembered the row over Dom at Barnard Castle, and Hancock’s affair, and realised we’d better change the plan sharpish”).

This embarrassing business dramatised two important aspects of the present situation. First, if there is one thing the public will not abide in this health crisis, it is the perception that there is “one rule for them, and one rule for us”. According to a snap poll by Savanta ComRes yesterday, 75 per cent of people think that this is precisely the basis upon which the government is operating, and 60 per cent say it was unfair of Johnson and Sunak to have tried to skip self-isolation.

Second, and more obviously, the landscape from which the Covid rules have been lifted is one where Covid is still rampant. The Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College, London, scientist who has done much to influence the government’s pandemic policy, said it was “almost inevitable” that the daily rate of new cases would soar to 100,000 – and possibly double that figure.

Free of official restrictions we may be, but free of the virus we most certainly are not. The analogy with Blackadder and 1917 isn’t exact, of course: whereas the soldiers of the First World War continued to be mown down in their millions for another year, the Covid death rate, at least in vaccinated nations, has fallen sharply.

On Saturday, for example, 54,674 new cases were recorded in the UK, and 41 more deaths. Compare and contrast the comparable number of cases on 3 January – 54,990 – with the much higher death toll of 454.

It was plain wrong of Boris Johnson to claim at PMQs on 7 July that “scientists are absolutely clear that we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death”. No such clarity exists; indeed no serious scientist is advancing this idea.

What is true is that mass vaccination has radically diminished the risk of critical illness and fatality – and it is churlish not to celebrate, loudly and repeatedly, that miraculous achievement of medical research and public service logistics.

The corollary, however, is that we now must get used to a social context stripped of regulation but still full of challenges, complexities and difficult trade-offs. Many more people are going to get ill, and that number will include some – such as Javid – who have been double-vaccinated.

It is remarkable that 68 per cent of adults (35,732,297 individuals) have already received both doses. But it is desperately important that the job be finished and, in particular, that vigorous efforts are made by all health agencies to ensure that younger people receive both jabs.

Optimism bias – the belief that things will turn out fine – is a natural and appealing feature of youth. The first 16 months of the pandemic will have encouraged young adults to believe that Covid is essentially a disease for the old and infirm. 

But the pathogen is cunning and its latest mutations are not as merciful to under-30s as their predecessors. It is also becoming ever more clear that Long Covid affects the young as aggressively as it does the old – particularly, it seems, relatively youthful women. What was once primarily perceived, with good reason, as a potentially lethal illness is morphing into a chronic condition, and one that will require resource-intensive care services for hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of patients for an indefinite period.

The crucial point is this: the restoration of our freedoms coincides not with Covid’s retreat but a radical shapeshift in the nature of the peril it presents. The virus is – for now, at least – mostly non-lethal, overwhelmingly so among the fully vaccinated. But this involves a new form of challenge to the NHS. Whereas, to put it brutally, a significant proportion of hospitalised patients in the first two waves died relatively quickly, a very different pattern is emerging this time round: more than ever, those who are admitted with Covid survive and are discharged in due course, but the higher rate of recovery also means that more patients are spending longer in hospital wards.

It is not death, but survival, that is threatening to overwhelm the NHS. There are simply not enough beds for the expected influx of patients (one hospital trust chief I spoke to said they were “braced for a tidal wave” on or around 1 August, three weeks after the day of the Euros Final, when social distancing was, shall we say, minimally observed).

I do not believe that Johnson will countenance a fourth national lockdown. When he said that the end of the third should be “irreversible”, he meant it. What he may have to concede, if NHS chiefs and his scientific advisers so urge him, is the need, later this year, to reimpose limited regulations.

Last night, Downing Street said that “data will be continually assessed and contingency measures retained if needed during higher risk periods, but restrictions will be avoided if possible”. This is quite some distance from what the PM had hoped to be saying today which was, essentially: “Let freedom ring!”

For now, the greatest problem facing the newly emancipated nation is the huge disruption of self-isolation. As hundreds of thousands of workers are “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app and instructed to quarantine themselves, transport services are being cancelled, military personnel forced off duty, manufacturing supply chains threatened, and retail companies subjected to continued pressure. 

From 16 August, those who are fully vaccinated will no longer be required to self-isolate. Ministers, I gather, are wondering whether or not to bring that date forward. In the words of one senior source: “Four weeks of chaos in this heat? It’s a political disaster in the making.”

The government must also decide whether or not to vaccinate those under the age of 18. This may make epidemiological sense – the young, almost by definition, are super-spreaders. But it raises a serious ethical question concerning the administration of a medical treatment that is low-risk but not risk-free, primarily for the benefit of others: why should a teenager whose vulnerability to serious illness from Covid is vanishingly small be vaccinated so that his elders are less likely to get sick? This is a spectacular inversion of the normal intergenerational order in which the old assume risk in order to protect the young. 

At the time of writing, ministers are only considering (at most) jabs for those who are approaching their 18th birthday and teenagers whose medical conditions make them vulnerable to Covid. But, like everything else, this remains “under review”.

What is happening today is the disaggregation of a big, simple thing – a national scheme of government regulations – into millions and millions of individual decisions. On Sky News yesterday, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, told Trevor Phillips that this entailed “personal responsibility and informed good judgment in the days ahead”.

Well, yes. But what does that actually mean? It is true that a functioning democracy cannot afford to treat its citizens like children, and depends upon their assumption of a whole range of duties beyond paying their taxes and obeying the law.

It is equally true, however, that this government has lifted all Covid restrictions without offering anything one could reasonably describe as a manual or a compass for use on the terrain onto which we are all now stepping.

Modern politics tends towards the binary (Leave versus Remain, woke versus traditional, ill versus cured) and the populist (there are simple solutions to complex problems). But – again – Covid doesn’t care about political culture; only about its own remorseless march across the planet.

Which brings us to the true irony of “Freedom Day”, and the only meaningful context in which it should really be considered. We can fuss and fret about masks on public transport, jabs for children, the rules for self-isolation and the case for lifting restrictions when the weather is hot and Covid has less chance to spread. And none of it will amount to a hill of beans if the rest of the world is not being vaccinated.

As Tortoise has been arguing in #TheArmsRace campaign, the humanitarian case for global vaccination is incontestable (if you are in any doubt about that, do look at this extraordinary photo essay edited by Jon Jones and read Lynne O’Donnell’s report from Afghanistan).

But the argument from enlightened self-interest is also overwhelming. If the virus is not suppressed in the death zones of the developing world, it will continue to mutate until a variant arises that combines the enhanced transmissibility of Delta with the vaccine resistance of Beta: or worse.

When such a variant reaches these shores, as it will, quickly, the arguments we are having at present will seem microscopically trivial. It is simply a statement of fact – not irresponsible alarmism – to say that until the international community addresses the vaccine crisis in the poorer nations, all the steps we are taking within our own borders will be provisional, temporary and vulnerable to the wrecking ball of a new and deadly Covid “flavour” (as the virologists like to call them).

And yes: of course it is hard to think about such things – about vaccines in Lahore, or Kabul, or Mogadishu – when your 20-year-old daughter hasn’t yet had her second jab; when you are worried about travelling on the Tube; when you are fretful that you yourself may get “pinged” and be forced to stay at home; when you really want to go abroad on holiday, feel you have earned it (and then some), but don’t know whether the country you’re heading to might be added to the “amber plus” list.

All of this is more than understandable. But – unfortunately – none of it alters the fact that we are facing a planetary threat, and must start to address it in a planetary fashion. When set against the global march of the pathogen, the narrowly national way in which we (and other Western countries) think about it is still laughably parochial.

Covid acts globally, and so must we. Until the richer nations come up with what Baldrick would call a “cunning plan” to immunise the world, as a matter of urgency, we shall be stuck in nothing better than a holding pattern. 

And – pointless to deny it – no such cunning plan yet exists. Freedom Day? What we have been handed this week is not freedom, but a fiction that, unless we act fast, will crumble into ashes all too soon.