Pandemic restrictions are over… sort of… Where do we go from here?

You might find yourself wondering why, when the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Health are all self-isolating, and new cases have reached the peak levels seen last over the New Year, today is a good day to declare as “Freedom Day”. And yet, for all of the bombast that the Prime Minister offered in the days leading up to today, even he is now quoted as saying;

So please, please, please be cautious. Go forward tomorrow into the next step with all the right prudence and respect for other people and the risks that the disease continues to present.

Whilst I agree with him for once this time, that’s not exactly the freedom that he so boldly claimed would be ours come 19 July.

You Gov poll, image from The Times

But, yet again, Government attempts to cajole the public in one direction have run, Wile E. Coyote style, into the anvil of public opinion, as has been the case pretty much throughout the pandemic. The public are cautious, and opinion remains that a more measured relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions is preferred.

There will be those who welcome the lifting of restrictions. It’s been a pretty terrible time to be young, for example, and being at the end of the queue to be vaccinated must feel like punishment when your life feels like it’s slipping away. And yet, my sense is that young adults have been pretty supportive of restrictions and willing to abide by them.

So, what now?

I tend to the view that we need to seek a balance between reassurance and freedom. There are 3.8 million people over the age of eighteen who are immuno-compromised, and thus highly vulnerable, and we cannot surely think it right to oblige them to shut themselves away, so encouraging people to continue to wear masks in confined spaces seems like a sensible move. Indeed, transport providers and retail outlets are strongly encouraging, or in some cases, obliging, customers to wear masks. We could provide better education on mask etiquette and cleaning – it amazes me how many people still don’t understand that the mask should cover both nose and mouth, for example.

We also need to find ways to overcome disincentives to test and report. As the furlough and self-employment income support schemes are wound down, targeted support to those needing to self-isolate, and for the businesses they work for, should be better designed, as without financial support, there are many who simply cannot afford to do so. And, if people feel obliged to opt out of tracking and tracing, the pandemic will last far longer and cost much more than it might otherwise do.

There is, in truth, not so much that Government can do that is practical or sensible. It is as much about encouraging our communities and, more importantly, the individuals within them, to think about others and not just themselves. That’s a problem when you have a Government like this one, where the concept of personal responsibility is utterly alien. The messages that emanate from 10 Downing Street are undermined by the occupant’s unfamiliarity with truth, or with facing the consequences of ones actions.

We need a roadmap out of the pandemic which leads public opinion rather than following it a couple of steps behind, but is honest about the uncertainties that lie ahead – new variants, NHS capacity. The public have shown incredible resilience and common sense, but still need to be encouraged back to whatever a new normal looks like. There are many, understandably, cautious people out there, and they need reassurance before filling shops and restaurants again. And, until they do, the damage to our economy will drag on and the long term impact will be all the greater.