Will Johnson's ‘Freedom Day' compromise England's most vulnerable?

Shoppers on London's Oxford Street, April 12, 2021.
Shoppers on London's Oxford Street, April 12, 2021. © Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP

The British government has confirmed that the requirement to wear face masks and social-distancing measures will be definitively lifted on July 19, dubbed "Freedom Day" by some in the UK press. But while fewer restrictions is welcome news for many, some elderly and medically vulnerable people see cause for concern as Covid-19 variants continue to spread.


The country's new health minister, Sajid Javid, was the one to make the announcement, telling Parliament: "We firmly believe that this is the right time to get our nation closer to normal life, so we will move to the next stage of our roadmap on July 19th."

Javid went on to say that he expects and advises people to wear face masks in certain settings, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people in England to "proceed with caution", saying the country could not instantly return to life as it had been before the pandemic.

"To take these steps we must be cautious and must be vaccinated," said Johnson.

The British government's pushing ahead with the removal of Covid-19 restrictions comes during a resurgence of the virus in the country due to the highly contagious Delta variant. Daily infection rates are now surpassing 35,000, their highest levels since January 2021. Most infections are in the younger population who have yet to receive a first dose of the vaccine. 

Many health experts believe it is too early to bring a sudden end to all restrictions on July 19, dubbed "Freedom Day" by the UK media, and recommend a phased easing of restrictions.

“The Prime Minister has already said that infections will rise, and that we will see more deaths – have we not had too many already?" asked Jan Shortt, general secretary of The National Pensioners’ Convention (NPC), the UK’s biggest campaigning organisation for older people.

The lifting of restrictions comes as the virus is spreading rapidly in Britain. Javid warned on July 6 that UK daily coronavirus cases could rocket to a record 100,000 after restrictions are lifted, saying that the country is about to enter "uncharted territory".

And while fewer restrictions will be welcome news for many, those who are particularly vulnerable see cause for concern.

"It will be the day that it feels like freedoms are being taken away," said Blood Cancer UK in a tweet on July 5. "We know that the next few weeks will be difficult for lots of people in our community. We want to do everything we can to support you through it."

"People with blood cancer are unlikely to have as much protection from the vaccines as people without cancer, and so many of them will be worried about whether lifting restrictions is sensible at a time when the infection rate is rising," it said.

"It's been great to start getting back to normal over the last couple of months, whether it's been going shopping or meeting friends outdoors or at outdoor seating at pubs and cafés. The reason many of you have felt able to do this is that the people around you have been keeping their distance and wearing masks. If people aren't doing these after the rules are lifted, then July 19 won't be freedom day for some people with blood cancer in England."

'Targets for wearing masks'

The UK reported 35,707 new Covid-19 cases on Friday. The total throughout the pandemic has now exceeded 5 million. The British government is putting all its faith in the vaccine disrupting the link between new infections and hospitalisation. As of Sunday, 87.1 percent of people aged 18 and over had received at least one vaccine dose, while 66 percent have had two. This equates to 51.8 percent of the entire population who are fully vaccinated. However, there is evidence in Britain that the number of people dying from Covid-19 and requiring hospitalisation has risen too, though at a lesser rate than new infections.

"There is likely to be a mixed reaction to the ending of restrictions as those who have been at home for nearly 18 months and are reasonably fit will be wanting to try to pick up on their activities. However, in doing so, they do have fears of the increase in infections and the way the government has portrayed it as a fait accompli," said Shortt, speaking with FRANCE 24. 

"There are concerns about walking into crowded shops, down crowded streets, on public transport. With no clarity around masks, social distancing and maintaining hygiene, our members have mentioned fear of being a target for wearing a mask or being without one. Vaccination is only part of the fight against Covid-19. We all have different opinions and we should all respect those who choose to stay safe due to age, disability, ill health or any other reason."

Shortt says that many older people will not see July 19 as Freedom Day. "Many of our members have health conditions, some quite severe. They have said that whilst it might be freedom for others, for them it is the opposite because they have to stay infection-free.”

She adds that anyone of any age with underlying health conditions will be at risk, but the risk and the fear will be particularly high for the older population.

"They have not forgotten the deaths in care homes, nor the excessive number of deaths per capita population. It is most likely that because of age and ill health, a good number of the predicted 50 deaths a day will be among the older population."

'Please respect our choices'

Emerging evidence from Johns Hopkins and other research centres shows vaccines may not work as well for people with suppressed immune systems, including some living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), reports the British MS Society.

"This is especially concerning given many of the same people are defined by the government as 'clinically extremely vulnerable' to Covid-19. Yet as the country prepares to take less precautions, the prime minister has failed to make clear how those most at risk will be supported to stay safe," said Philip Anderson, head of policy at the MS Society.

"It is imperative the government ensures vulnerable people are not pressured to stop working from home, as well as ensuring they can get food and medical care without facing crowded shops or hospitals unnecessarily. Clinically extremely vulnerable people should also be able to view the most up-to-date assessment of risks to give them much-needed reassurance that this next phase will be safe for them."

Carla King was diagnosed with MS in 2008. She is someone who is considered "clinically extremely vulnerable" and shielded for 16 months. Writing in a blog post for MS Trust, she noted that an alarming consequence of the government revoking its previous strong recommendation to work from home is that people who have to protect themselves no longer have Covid-specific security at their workplace.

“I wonder how many have been pressured to return to the workplace by their employer, particularly in London, where there is a huge push for the city to be busy again. How many will be denied the adjustment of working from home, where previously an entire workforce was doing this successfully? What of the dilemma for those working with the public, for example in retail, now that customers no longer need to wear masks?”

“Real freedom is doing what we feel is right for ourselves, without judgment. Our one request: whatever your opinion, please respect our choices.”

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