Let’s not squander the summer
The British weather has a well-known impact on the national mood. Unusually long spells of sunshine made the first 2020 lockdown more bearable for many. By contrast, this year’s perishing spring made Step 2 of the UK government’s ‘Roadmap out of lockdown’ a sobering experience, during which a trip to the pub required determination, detailed planning, and several layers of clothing.
Now that the summer seems finally to have arrived, and we are all but barred from our usual sun-seeking adventures abroad, people living in Britain are holding on to the 21 June ‘Freedom Day’ as a beacon of hope – and also, reward. For over a year, we have complied with myriad confusing and contradictory restrictions on our personal behaviour and working lives; eagerly adopted the Covid vaccine when it is has been offered; and put up with the economic hits of pay cuts, 80% furlough wages, and collapses in self-employed income.
We have watched as hospitalisations and deaths from Covid have plummeted, with excess deaths from all causes currently at relatively low levels. In this context, social distancing rules have come to seem arbitrary to the point of nonsensical. A teenager might spend all day at school in a class of 30, yet is banned from having a party in their own house. Couples dreaming of their big wedding day can opt only for an uptight, low-key affair; those who want an informal celebration inside a pub or restaurant are allowed a mere five friends. Older people, with their double jabs and a keen awareness of their own mortality, have been denied such life-affirming events as family reunions, holidays, and – until recently – hugs.
Yet amidst all this, there has been hope. At the start of 2021, the hope was that vaccines, combined with levels of acquired immunity, would protect the elderly and vulnerable from serious illness and death – assuaging the fear that gripped us in 2020. We have been told, repeatedly, that this goal has been reached; yet despite its promise to be guided by ‘data not dates’, the government has stuck rigidly to its ‘cautious but irreversible’ roadmap. So our hope has transferred to a new target: 21 June – the day the government will retain its stated aim to ‘remove all legal limits on social contact’. Now the media chatter is that this hope may well be quashed.
This puts us in new, and worrying, territory. For the most part, the British public has accepted official restrictions on social contact as a well-meaning, if sometimes misguided, attempt to protect citizens from a dangerous virus. The extent to which a host of contradictory rules and odd behaviours have been described as ‘because of the pandemic’ – rather than ‘because of lockdown policy’ – is testament to that. But as time goes on, the relationship between the virus and the rules is unravelling. The past three months has shown that restrictions will persist when levels of the virus are very low; the past three weeks has shown that any rise in positive tests are likely to trigger dramatic U-turns – as those holidaymakers desperately cancelling trips to Portugal have found to their cost.
The branding of 21 June as ‘Freedom Day’ has made explicit that what stands in the way of our legal right to basic social pleasures is not a wartime enemy or a deadly disease, but restrictions imposed by our own government upon its citizens. These simple pleasures range from going to a nightclub or festival, to having three families round for dinner; from celebrating our nuptials with anybody we want to invite, to commemorating a death with all those who knew and loved them. Although many of us may have become used to living with extraordinary legal limits on social contact, we have done this in the expectation that ‘the rules’ are temporary and the knowledge that we cannot live this way forever.
If ‘Freedom Day’ is postponed or diluted, more of us will be pushed into the position of being outlaws for merely going about our daily lives. That is not the mark of a healthy, or happy, democracy; the only thing it would achieve is grumpy disobedience, when what we need now is a bit of fun, some hope for the future, and each other. We have waited so long for the sun to come out – it’s time to embrace it.