Imagine watching the past 15 months back in montage. There’d be plenty of moving footage of NHS workers, people looking plaintively out of windows and the heroic vaccine effort. But there’d also be certain scenes that made you think the nation had lost its mind. Roped off toys in Welsh supermarkets, police tape on park benches and Michael Gove telling the country about the correct length of walk or size of meal. It might include Cycling UK’s advice that cyclists should preserve social distancing when passing pedestrians by pulling out into the middle of the road, which sounds safe. Or even my local council, which upon reopening the playgrounds removed every other swing and turned off the fountains – because Covid notoriously travels in water.
Even the Prime Minister himself appeared to imply that some of this ‘Covid theatre’ has been ridiculous. When laying out the roadmap to the reopening of pubs he joked: “Honourable Members will be relieved there will be no curfew, and the scotch egg debate will be over because there will be no requirement for alcohol to be accompanied by a substantial meal.”
But as we look ahead to ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21, we should at least be able to put the sillier bits of the pandemic behind us…shouldn’t we?
Rumours are currently circulating that social distancing and masks indoors will remain in place for an unspecified period. That wouldn’t just be a kick in the teeth for the already prostrate hospitality industry, but an offence to common sense. The idea that you can happily breathe out all the Covid you like while sitting down in a restaurant, but that putting a mask on to go to the loo saves lives is plainly ludicrous.
Medical experts say maintaining restrictions for ‘a few more weeks’ would allow more time to gather data, roll out more vaccines, and avoid a ‘third wave’ in Autumn. Even the most ardent lockdown sceptics could accept that buying time to get as many vulnerable people vaccinated as possible could save lives, rather than just delaying them. But now that half the adult population is fully immunised and the most vulnerable are as protected as it’s possible to be, the priority should be getting the rest of the country back on its feet.
Pushing back the end of social distancing beyond June 21 will be devastating for businesses. Though some of the media coverage suggests the economy is more or less back to normal, the latest figures from the ONS show that 55% of pub staff are still furloughed and only 24% of pub owners have “high confidence” that their business will survive the next three months. Try telling a landlord hoping to draw boisterous crowds for the Euros that it’s ‘only a few more weeks’.
This proposed delay is the worst of both worlds, it emphasises weak measures like mask wearing that will have little effect on the virus while still harming the economy and removing our choices. It’s little more than a fig leaf that will drive the misconception that face coverings and handwashing can control the spread, when we now know that ventilation is much more important. But it’s also a betrayal of individuals, particularly young people who have sacrificed so much and deserve to get their lives back. At some point we need to accept that constraining our most basic civil liberties has become a greater threat than the virus – if we haven’t passed that point by now, then when will we?
And if our world-beating vaccine programme really isn’t enough to give us back our freedom, then we should be having a very different conversation. Rather than pettifogging about masks, and pretending that standing up in pubs is a key vector of transmission, we should be talking about how to live with the virus. We should be asking what we can do for multi-generational households, how to incentivise businesses to improve workplace conditions and how to encourage outdoor socialising. But instead of serious thinking about how we might tackle Covid in the long term if vaccines aren’t the magic bullet we hope they are, we’re getting the creep of the current status quo.
After over a year of living under the cosh of public health diktats, it’s time to readjust our attitude to risk. One of the strangest things about so many of Covid’s privations is that we’ve imposed them on ourselves. Many of the ‘rules’ about social distancing were never set down in legislation, there was guidance that organisations, businesses and individuals had to adapt. From putting hand sanitiser stations on every door to vaccinated families fretting about hugging each other, the pandemic has convinced us to comply with things we recognise are pointless and which aren’t even the law. British people are not meek and subservient by nature, but depriving us of our freedom for longer than necessary will perpetuate the culture of fear that has made us like this.
Boris Johnson has said he wants to “to recapture some of the energy and optimism that this country used to have,” dispensing with the Covid theatrics once and for all would be a good start.
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