19 July 2021 — trumpeted as “freedom day” — with Covid regulations coming to an end, saw infections rising and 39,950 new cases. The daily number of new cases hasn’t been that high since the emergency tightening of rules at Christmas (where the surge peaked at 68,053 on 8 January). That’s not a good sign. Vaccinations have helped bring numbers down, but the increased infectiousness of the delta variant is pulling the other way. No vaccine is 100% effective, and it’s right to be concerned about parts of society where people are chosing not to be vaccinated.
Denying the seriousness
In the Daily Mail of 17 July, Graham Brady argued that relaxing the rules is about freedom. He likens the people’s reservations about the change to “Stockholm syndrome” — where captives identify with their captors. Choice extracts from the article include:
“After 16 months of being told by the state when we could leave our homes, whether we could see our families, with whom we were allowed to have sex, or what kinds of sports we were permitted to play, many of us are eager to regain the human dignity that comes with the exercise of our own free will.”
“How far a proud nation has allowed itself to fall!
So, as we approach tomorrow’s partial lifting of restrictions, some of us eagerly anticipate being allowed to have a family meal again in our own homes and will do so.
Yet others are anxious and are asking for restrictions to go on for just a little bit longer.”
The idea that this is about “how far a proud nation has allowed itself to fall” leaps off the page. It’s strikingly reminiscent of the jingoistic support for Brexit. And, as with Brexit, it ignores the fact that the UK is facing the same problems as the rest of the world.
Learning to live with Covid is not at all the same thing as pretending it has gone away. It will continue to be a problem until the vast majority of the world’s population have been vaccinated. Political will doesn’t change that. But I do suspect that there is a wealth issue: people who are more wealthy tend to live with more space and don’t face the same infection risks as people crowded together in substandard accommodation. Brady’s article reads like a claim that he wants his freedom and is not bothered about the consequences for others:
“Many politicians and advisers will admit privately that the policy change compelling people to wear masks was not really about the spread of infection at all but about the psychological effect that they would have.
That real purpose is social control – to provide a constant reminder to maintain distance from other people.
To maintain a state of anxiety that leaves people more likely to comply with the restrictions that might otherwise be resisted or forgotten.”
The Boris Johnson (non) exception
This comes hard on the back of the news that Sajid Javid (having been fully vaccinated) had tested positive for Covid, and Boris Johnson seemed to say that he would ignore the instruction to self-isolate (as someone who had spend time with Javid). He changed direction rapidly, but his words give a lingering sense that he sees himself as an exception. That’s not exactly modelling a responsible approach. It comes on the back of stories of Johnson saying “let the bodies pile high” in the autumn of 2020.
The Covid Recovery Group
Among Conservative MPs the “European Research Group” has done considerable damage by arguing for Brexit in defiance of reality. As the grizzly reality of Brexit emerges it is becoming increasingly clear that their reading of Brexit and of the EU is far detached from reality.
Modelled on the “European Research Group”, the “Covid Recovery Group” is another collection of Conservative MPs arguing against lockdown as a response to Covid. The sense seems to be to prioritise the economy and liberty and ignore the consequences. Graham Brady’s article doesn’t mention his membership of the Covid Recovery Group, but his belittling of the concerns of people wary of relaxing the rules fits with the ERG approach, and flies in the face of medical and scientific advice (is this another case of “people have had enough of experts”?)
One of the big problems with the language of “freedom day” is that it licenses those who are reluctant to be vaccinated, often on grounds of spurious claims about risk or liberty.
The highest profile claims over vaccine safety have been around the risk of blood clots after taking the Astrazenica vaccine. When the European Medicines Agency reported, they had investigated 25 cases, out of 20 million people, and concluded that incidence of blood clots “was lower than that expected in the general population”.
Doctors are writing of “unvaccinated patients with many regrets”. The problem here is that it is not just the anti-vaxxers who suffer — it’s also the people who are having to wait longer for their hip replacements because of Covid patients needing hospital treatment.
The racist angle
Where this gets horribly complex is where it intersects with race. By the summer of 2020 it had become clear that members of some of the Black and Minority Ethnic communities were being disproportionately affected by Covid.
To people used to being on the receiving end of racism, this landed badly. I’ve heard anxieties around that expressed in a range of ways from with in the BAME communities, but the net effect has been a reluctance to get vaccinated — I fear that is because this is associated with pressure from a (white) government. Relaxing the rules now risks Covid landing particularly heavily on these BAME communities.
There’s a range of possible explanations for Covid having a disproportionately serious effect on some BAME communities last year, which don’t point directly to racism (or the virus being racist). But the tragedy is that the experience of having been on the receiving end of racism means this has been processed in a way that will now leave these communities suffering in the fallout of “freedom day”. That’s bad in itself, and stores up problems around race relations for the future.
A rash decision
A piece in The Guardian on 10 July said “Two Whitehall sources told the Guardian that ministers had been spooked by internal polling. One said the data showed just 10% of the public support the policy of scrapping all restrictions at once, while another said substantially more people believed the government was moving too quickly than at the last reopening step on 17 May.”
The implication is that the Government is pushing ahead despite widespread reservations. On the parallel with Brexit, I am struck that a poll at the end of 2020 said that just 17% of Britons supported Johnson’s Brexit deal. The sense with both is of a government pushing ahead on a frolic of its own with scant regard for the needs of the country. Hardly a model of wise leadership.
A serious postscript…
The sentiments of anti-vaxxers, and those who treat masks as an affront to their liberties, only make sense if people fail to recognise the seriousness of Covid19. That’s on the same page as the people claiming Covid19 is a hoax, or a “plandemic”.
A psychoanalytic lens on this might suggest that a very natural response to something deeply scary is to deny it. That’s to see Covid19 as a hoax because admitting its reality would be too scary (there’s a parallel with those who deny climate change rather than face it). A second natural response is to get into a fight — in this case between Covid-sceptics and those genuinely concerned by the realities of Covid.
A government achieving a measure of mature dependency would have enabled people to see that there is a problem, and that it can be faced — by vaccination and exceptional economic measures. What we seem to have instead is a government leading the flight away from reality — both on Covid and on Brexit. That’s serious.