Today has been a long time coming and for many who have been drained of any tolerance for further lockdowns it is a day not too soon.
This finally feels like a huge step change to normality. If scientists and many politicians wince at the notion of ‘freedom day’, to many people that is exactly how it feels.
The current alarming rise in cases would normally be followed by more restrictive measures, not an opening up. And although the race to vaccinate to break the link between the virus and hospitalisation appears to be bearing fruit, there is a body of opinion that thinks this is just too much too soon.
I would suggest that the opening up is down to three factors. First, after 16 months public support for further lockdowns is likely to wane as exasperation trumps a persevering with the lockdown policy. If there is falling public support for the status quo it simply cannot survive. Secondly, the vaccination programme has transformed the landscape and people will ask why restrictions are in place when so many have been double jagged? Third, the economic cost of further restrictions is now starting to shift the focus away from what people cannot do in their daily lives.
The factor that is unknown at the moment is by how much infections will rise before the numbers go into reverse. Hospitalisations will increase, that’s a given, but the vaccination programme should ensure that the NHS, whilst under stress should cope and the death rate should be far lower than in previous waves. If that doesn’t happen it begs a simple question, could we go back to a policy of lockdown?
The understandable protests from business about the damage being wrought by the policies of the last year or so in part explains why there is now more focus on economic recovery. And yet a growth in infections will necessitate more and more people being asked to self-isolate in the coming month which will also act as a break on the growth of businesses as staff are required to stay at home.
Holidaying is a dance with risk at the moment with almost daily rule changes that move the goalposts for travel agents, airports, airlines and those who just want to get away. The certainty that the industry craves won’t be forthcoming and I suspect that they know it. It is why I have simply put foreign travel on hold until the international environment is far more stable. When that will be is anyone’s guess.
The messaging north and south of the border has been marginally different in substance and markedly different in tone. The Prime Minister veers from bullish liberal on opening up to jittery conservative as the dawn approaches, no doubt with the cautionary words of some advisers ringing in his ears about the virus possibly getting out of control.
Even by the erratic communication standards of the UK Government yesterday must be a new low. After the health secretary tested positive for Covid, Downing Street let it be known neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor would be self-isolating. Robert Jenrick took that line to the TV studios only to look a chump as Johsnon and Sunak bowed to the inevitable and decided to follow their own rules. As the political editor of the Financial Times George Parker put it this morning, you could see from outer space that their initial position was untenable.
From Dominic Cummings to Matt Hancock from Boris Johnson to Rishi Sunak a continuing story of ‘do as I say not as I do’. Rarely can a government be said to have so collectively displayed a contempt for its own rules. And they wonder why the public view politicians with a certain suspicion if not contempt?
The coming few months will crystallise a lot and may definitively conclude if we are over this dreadful, horrible disease. The legacy should never be forgotten and it is to be found in the heartache of those who have lost loved ones, the heroic efforts of our NHS staff, the pain of those with long Covid and yes every last one of us who have had lives turned upside down.
I just want it all to be filed under history. I hope the final chapter is being written but I fear there is still some way to go before that is the case. For all the positivity around the vaccination programme I still have a sense of unease on what is a watershed day.