Throughout the worst of the pandemic ‘returning to normal’ has sounded like a distant and unbelievable prospect. But a return to something like pre-Covid life is now possible, given the Prime Minister’s confirmation this week that almost all Covid restrictions will cease on 19th July. And if anyone doubted that things are ‘returning to normal’ England even lost a major football match to a nail-biting penalty shoot-out!
Of course, it’s not as simple as suddenly waking up to a day of zero Covid and life exactly as it always was - if only. Infection levels are relatively low in Suffolk, but rising nonetheless. There are predictions of a significant rise in hospitalisations. If that is so, even though we have not had a Covid death in Suffolk for weeks, that morbid figure may also creep upwards. Certainly, the PM is surely right to stress that for all that the legal lockdown is lifting, we must remain cautious. It’s about balancing freedom and responsibility.
To do this, we must remember how extraordinary it was for the state to legislate to close businesses overnight that had been built up over many years; how unprecedented it was that we passed laws on the number of people allowed in a private home; how we banned all kinds of wonderful human activities (e.g. golf, or singing in a choir); how we removed freedoms and halted the pastimes that define our culture. The single reason I most strongly want us to exit legal lockdown is that the default disposition of the state must always be that its subjects are free, outside of extraordinary circumstances. This was a state of emergency justifying extreme measures; but the emergency has passed, even if Covid has not completely vanished.
Some will argue that while the virus is prevalent it is ‘foolhardy’ to end lockdown. To which I would echo the PM – if not now, when? I fear potentially never, or not for a long time. The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, has confirmed that there is no serious case for delay. He says if we delay ending legal lockdown again, possibly into the autumn, then this could be far worse given that it is already a time when pressure is growing on the NHS. Whereas, the 19th July is when schools rise – guaranteeing less mixing – and the hottest time of weather reduces the general prevalence of respiratory infection.
The fact is that we cannot realistically hope to eradicate all Covid, we have to learn to live with the disease and stop the position of removing fundamental human liberty to avoid pressure on hospitals. Naturally, we all want our hospitals to be as fully functioning as possible, but the agenda must now move to reopening sensibly; driving our economic recovery; and in turn tackling our deficit and raising the revenues to fund the greatest possible effort to bear down on Covid backlogs, from the courts, to HGV licence testing, to those waiting for elective surgery.
And I am bound to point out that there is a catch in our reopening and it goes ‘ping’. We may be leaving lockdown on 19th July but double vaccinated persons will not be able to choose a PCR test over having to isolate for 10 days - if found to be a close contact of someone testing positive for Covid - until 16th August. This in itself will surely mean that many will tread warily as they see their freedom restored, and rightly so. But the direction of travel is clear: as a result of our brilliant vaccine program, we are finally on the road to a brighter future.
Published in the Suffolk Free Press.