While many of us will be eagerly anticipating the lifting of almost all coronavirus restrictions on so-called “freedom day”, for others 19 July is a date that has been filling them with dread.
England will move to step four of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown today, when social distancing and mandatory mask wearing will come to an end, although people will be advised to continue wearing face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces such as public transport.
But the clinically vulnerable and those working in customer-facing roles such as retail, hospitality and healthcare have grave concerns about the “confusing” new guidance.
Claire Saunders, convenience store manager
Claire Saunders, who manages a convenience store near a pub in Essex, said her colleagues were “more anxious than ever before” as freedom day loomed.
The 41-year-old said the level of abuse her team has faced has “increased massively” during the pandemic as they have tried to enforce the use of face masks and social distancing by asking people to wait outside.
“Convenience stores are a lot smaller than supermarkets so it’s more difficult to socially distance, we are open until a lot later, you get a variety of people coming in, it’s not a big supermarket where you have guards on the door,” she told The Independent.
“People are still scared,” she added. “We’re in the community and especially get elderly customers and they’re still very anxious, as are colleagues, because Covid hasn’t just thought, ‘oh, I’m going away’.”
Matt Tacey, nurse
Matt Tacey, an NHS mental health nurse in the Midlands, branded freedom day “careless, reckless and quite frankly dangerous”.
“The death rate at the moment is quite low but the number of people in beds is increasing – we are going to get to a point where we have no hospital beds left and then what are we going to do,” said the 30-year-old, who is also a member of Nurses United’s core leadership team.
“There was an occasion last year where the Covid ward was full and we had a Covid-positive patient in the back of an ambulance for about eight hours because there was no space. That then has a knock-on effect in the community.
“It’s petrifying stuff. I know staff who’ve got PTSD from the pandemic, it’s triggering their trauma.”
The health worker said patients were already demanding standard services, such as being seen in-person.
“It’s already started,” he said. “We are at risk of verbal abuse and physical abuse, particularly where I work in mental health. Every single staff member I’ve spoken to agrees with the restrictions staying in place.”
Lee Walker, living with chronic fatigue
Lee Walker, who has myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome, and fibromyalgia said he won’t risk leaving the house come today.
“It just seems like anybody who isn’t 100 per cent fit and healthy has been completely disregarded,” said the 40-year-old, from Grantham, who went through a divorce and had to move home early in the pandemic.
“I would like to say I will be looking forward to going out to the cinema but I can’t go out to the cinema, or a restaurant or a bar – I might if everything was still perfectly socially distanced but I can’t when there’s people who possibly haven’t been vaccinated and would not wear a mask if I asked them to.”
Once a fortnight for the last six months, Mr Walker and his partner have been visiting the supermarket to get him out of the house and on his feet – but he doesn’t feel safe to do this small outing anymore.
“Those little trips other people see as a chore or take completely for granted I would get to look forward to but from Monday I’m not going to have that,” he said. “I can’t risk it; I can’t rely on other people to keep me safe anymore.”
Bobby Morton, transport worker
Bobby Morton, national officer for passenger transport at Unite trade union, said bus drivers were very fearful about today after dozens of bus drivers died during the pandemic.
Describing a meeting he held on Wednesday with union representatives for each of the UK’s bus operators, he told The Independent: “We were going round the room and they would give me chapter and verse of how their drivers were feeling and I got to one particular guy and he just said, “help us”.
“The fears are with the Delta variant that despite the fact the drivers are as safe as we can make them in their cabs, they do on occasion have to go into the bus itself and of course with there being very little ventilation the driver could be breathing in particles of the virus and anything else.
“Every bus driver rep I speak to mentions mental health.”
Mr Morton said he expected to see people “turn away from buses in their droves” as social-distancing is scrapped.
Jade Smith, pregnant mother
Families with seriously-ill youngsters are “facing a summer of fear”, according to national children’s charity Starlight.
Jade Smith, one such parent whose husband had to live away from home during the first national lockdowns to continue working because their five-year-old son Thomas has an undiagnosed blood condition, said she is “nervous” about next week.
The mother, who is pregnant with their second child and has been advised to postpone getting a second dose of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, said: “I understand why we need to lift restrictions but it does seem too soon. I’d rather they’d wait until all adults have been offered two jabs, that would just give us an extra layer of protection.”
Ms Smith, from southwest London, said she and her son would continue to wear masks and would avoid visiting places during peak times.
“I feel my worries are to protect Thomas, but also the other children and families in hospital,” she said. “We could pass the virus on to the family in the next bed, there are no curtains to help with the ventilation, so we are only a chair width away from another parent and child, it does make you worry.”
Other major trade unions are calling on the government to keep some Covid safety measures mandatory to protect customer-facing workers.
Paddy Lillis, general secretary of retail trade union Usdaw, said guidance on social-distancing and face masks should be backed up by the law, instead of down to individual choice, “to avoid confusion”.
“Retail staff already face unacceptable levels of abuse,” he added. “They have worked throughout the pandemic to keep the country fed and deserve to be valued, respected and protected.”
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls has also called for customers to be respectful of hospitality staff.
She told The Independent: “Nobody knows their own business better than themselves and so operators are best placed to assess what necessary measures are required to keep staff and customers safe after 19 July.
“We therefore urge people to be respectful to hard working staff and business owners.”
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea warned a third wave of coronavirus infections “will put NHS staff under intolerable pressure”.
She added: “The government must row back and make mask wearing mandatory again. Now isn't the time to ditch face coverings.”