The government and our newly-appointed health secretary, Sajid Javid, are keen to emphasise that today is a win against Covid-19 – but for me, it will just be another day in a pandemic that has yet to end.
In the run-up to this so-called “freedom day”, friends, family and colleagues have all been in touch to ask me what, if any, changes I will be making to my life post-19 July. My answer has been simple: none.
From today I will change none of the behaviours that I have put into place over the last 17 months to prevent infection – and I urge everyone who reads this to do the same.
Before you call me an overly-cautious stick in the mud, I am simply doing what Boris Johnson has urged us to do. He is relying on the use of common sense to control the virus after today. With us all deciding which pandemic measures to continue to engage in voluntarily.
I feel we should keep the same social distancing measures in place, as well as continuing wearing a mask, to wash our hands, to limit the places and people we see. It is remarkably easy to do. For example, common sense dictates that the effect that Euro 2020 have had on transmission are still yet to be felt (obvious to anyone who watched the scenes at Wembley).
There is the potential for a looming – and potentially deadly “freedom wave” – that will inevitably follow “freedom day”. There are so many sensible reasons to choose from, but for me, pandemic measures have always been about helping protect people, so we should bear in mind the effect the end of restrictions will have on these same people.
Consider our NHS staff. As several professional bodies have made clear in the past few weeks, the NHS is at breaking point. We went into the pandemic under-staffed and as a result parts of the workforce are burnt out, struggling to staff under-resourced wards operating at over-capacity. That, coupled with years-long waitlists caused by the pandemic for screening, diagnosis and treatments, means that the NHS is far from getting back to “normal” operating procedures.
What does all that really mean? That right now we don’t have enough staff to safely and effectively diagnose and treat all the people who need healthcare in our country. In the saddest form of the “Christmas in July” meme I have ever seen, the NHS is already operating in “winter” measures to try and cope with patient numbers. While the NHS remains overwhelmed, it is reckless and nonsensical to abandon a formal requirement for simple infection control measures that have helped keep the virus marginally in check in recent months.
The second group that deserves our consideration is the great unvaccinated among us. Whether this be the clinically extremely vulnerable, those ineligible or unable to take up the vaccine, or the scores of countries who have still not been able to obtain the vaccine for their populations. A huge proportion of the world remains vulnerable to infection, illness and fallout from Covid-19.
These groups have been continually ignored throughout the pandemic, and as we consider how to “exit” the pandemic (a misnomer, but that’s for another time) this ignorance has continued to threaten lives. This is a shocking tactic to take when we consider that these groups have little ability to protect themselves, but the potential to suffer the most from infection.
It’s even more staggering when we start to break down the numbers. Consider just the clinically extremely vulnerable: 3.7 million people in the UK remain clinically extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. For reference, the population of Wales is smaller. Among this group almost a third (29 per cent) are still shielding to protect themselves. Seems small change until you do the maths and find that equates to more than a million of our fellow Brits still trapped at home, fearful for their lives and their health.
For them “freedom day” is a scary day when the measures they have come to depend on to keep them safe will cease to be compulsory. It is message that says to them: “Your lives matter less than the ability to shop without a mask and go to a packed nightclub.”
Personally, that’s not a mantra I want to live my life by. Nor has it been the ethos of community embraced by so many in the pandemic. When revealed for the stark situation that it is, I suspect many other Brits would see it as a senseless and careless approach too.
Finally, if the health of the nation is not enough to persuade you, perhaps the health of our children is. Unfortunately, the vaccination of children remains a significant issue in the fight to control Covid-19, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) advising that it is “less urgent” to give the jab to children and adolescents, unless they are clinically vulnerable. While children have had lower levels of infection and severe disease in the short term, they have the potential to pass the virus on – and the impact of long Covid on all age groups remains unknown.
Removing all pandemic measures in and out schools, as proposed by our government, will create an ideal environment for the virus to develop, infect and mutate. This is not a prediction; it has already started. As the Delta variant has ripped through schools unchecked, we have seen the devastating consequences this has had on both health and wellbeing. Arguments have abounded during the pandemic about the long-term effects of lockdowns and home schooling on the wellbeing of children, and yet there seems to be little time spent considering that there is a similar impact of removing infection control measures too.
For me, maintaining existing pandemic measures just makes sense. From today I will continue to wear a mask to help boost the protection of those groups who have no choice but to be on the frontline. I’ll wash my hands for those with no option but to rely on others to avoid disease. I’ll keep my distance and avoid crowds both inside and out in the hopes this helps stem potential infection among our children. I’ll get vaccinated because I can.
That’s how I’ll be using my common sense in the fight against Covid-19. I hope you will do the same.
Dr Alexis Paton is a lecturer in social epidemiology and the sociology of health and co-director of the Centre for Health and Society at Aston University. Dr Paton is also chair of the Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians and a trustee of the Institute of Medical Ethics