The date of 21 June – or “freedom day”, as it was briefly known – has been and gone. Its bacchanalian celebrations were replaced, for the most part, by a rare chance to honour the summer solstice by reigniting the central heating.
But when it comes around again, on 19 July, there are many reasons to believe that freedom day will not be as many people imagine it.
Already, the government is talking freedom down. Indeed, it would currently appear that the only people who will get to enjoy any kind of freedom, on that day, will be the government itself. Its members will be free from the onerous responsibility of worrying about the pandemic, and will instead be handing it over to you. From 19 July, you’ll be allowed to do what you want. The only restraint on how you choose to behave will be your own susceptibility to the passive aggressive rage of others.
The environment minister, George Eustice, was doing the rounds on the radio and TV stations on Thursday morning, where he explained that what will be happening on 19 July will be the end of “legal restrictions”. It will no longer be the government’s problem to tell everybody to wear a face covering, or keep two metres apart, and all the miserable rest of it.
But, he explained, some people may “choose to”. It will be up to individual people, in other words, to make decisions about what they do and don’t want to do. There were 25,000 new coronavirus cases recorded in the UK yesterday, an astonishingly high number – though a fraction of hospitalisations and deaths than such a high number would have certainly corresponded to before the vaccination programme.
Exponential maths being what it is, there can be almost no doubt that freedom day shouldn’t go ahead as planned; it will be occurring in the middle of what is set to be a quite epic wave of infection, and the hope that vaccinations will by that point have broken the link between infection and its rather worse cousins.
Which it will – but not completely. And so we stand ready for yet another summer rather like the one before. Which is to say, a summer of passive aggression, of social media shaming, and all of it even more super charged than ever before, happening as it will under the watchful eye of a government that will be saying no more than, “look, it’s really up to you, all this”.
The go-to canon of philosophers of positive and negative freedom were rather low on pandemic guidance. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the rest do not shed much light on a scenario in which a still rather deadly illness can be passed around by people who aren’t really at risk from it, and then passed on to people who are.
Should you go to the park? The beach? The pub? Should you wear a mask on the Tube? Shouldn’t you? Should you go on holiday abroad or shouldn’t you? Well Boris Johnson’s very helpful answer to this very question, when asked on Thursday afternoon, was that he was, “ruling nothing in and ruling nothing out”.
Don’t ask me, in other words. You’re all on your own.
These tricky questions, crucial as they are to keeping society safe, will soon just be made a private matter, outsourced to seventy million or so private citizens, while the government, and the rest of us, will have to cross our fingers and hope that this vast mass of very different people, with very different attitudes, needs and desires, will somehow just get it right.
They can’t, of course. It’s not possible. But this is what freedom day means. It’s a new kind of freedom. The freedom to hope that everything will be OK, and the freedom not to expect anyone to step in if it very much isn’t. Actually, it’s not that new. It’s freedom how it used to be. It is, in fact, the very kind of freedom, the freedom, in other words, to be killed by your rather selfish neighbour, that prompted Thomas Hobbes and the rest to point out that, actually, this kind of freedom is really rather crap.
But that is where we are. Once upon a time, Johnson and co only wanted to take us back to the 1970s, but the late middle ages it is. Life comes at you fast, so they say, and never faster than when its dragging you back in the wrong direction.