None of us should take lightly the impact that the COVID-19 virus has had on the health of the nation – indeed the world. Most of us will know someone who has lost their life as a result of the pandemic and certainly will know those who have been affected directly by the virus. The loss of life is tragic, not just because it is a large number that we see reported every evening, but because behind each number lies an individual, a bereaved family and a community left slightly poorer as a result.
Nevertheless we must also avoid the risk of undervaluing our freedoms. The economic impact of the pandemic has been huge. Masked somewhat by the largess of HM Treasury in compensating for the Government imposed restrictions, but that bill too will have to be settled eventually. Economic consequences are real. They hurt families as well as businesses. Hardship, destitution and even suicide have been the result.
Yet our liberty is worth more than can be counted on the balance sheet of our companies. It is only our freedom that allows people to go out and establish businesses, create employment and generate income. It is that liberty that has so severely been curtailed over more than a year that has hampered so many weddings and meant that loved ones have been unable to say a proper farewell to their beloved friends and family.
The call for freedom is sometimes portrayed as the selfish call of (predominantly) the young. More interested in the reopening of nightclubs for hedonistic gratification than the health of the nation. Yet whether you want to utilise your liberty by visiting a nightclub, a theatre, a concert hall or simply chatting spontaneously with a seventh person in your local pub, freedom itself should be cherished.
Freedoms are never absolute. Before most of us had heard of the word coronavirus there was always a trade-off between the individual and society. Yet the imposed cure for the virus has push the bounds of that balancing act, and in many ways seemingly reset the equilibrium.
I do not doubt for one moment (unpopular though it may be) the motives of either politicians or scientists charged with keeping the population safe. The vast majority were, and perhaps still are, willing to suspend their freedoms for a time in order to combat the clear threat to public health that endangers not just ourselves, but those around us. This selflessness has been admirable and I believe well placed. There seems however to have been a shift in the debate. It is less an argument for why our liberties should be restricted, but more an argument for how and when we should be granted them once more. This is unhealthy, and potentially damaging in the long run as the freedoms that we have not just cherished for generations, but actually fought to protect are withheld from the populous. This can only be done by consent. So far the consensus appears to be holding, but I do not believe the patience of the British public is never ending.
From a personal perspective my concern about the delay announced by the Prime Minister today is not the four weeks in itself, but what is says about our appetite for risk, and the indication of a potential scenario that lasts for many more months indeed. As I have stated I don’t believe that we should belittle the impact that a delay even for a short period, and we must remember that this does not come in isolation, but at the end of a period of restrictions that began well over a year ago. The concern though is whether the Government, advised by SAGE, will have the courage to remove the restrictions in a month’s time.
This is a judgement, one that very few envy the Prime Minister for. I happen to think that on this occasion the judgement being made is wrong, but I must also entertain the possibility that I am the one who is mistaken. As I began, the impact of the virus is real and so lives are at stake. My criticism is therefore not made lightly.
The case made today that by delaying “Freedom Day” by four weeks, two-thirds of the adult population will be vaccinated is a strong one. Nevertheless if we were to delay just a few more weeks after that, perhaps we could reach 80%. A little longer, possibly 90%. If total coverage was the aim it should have been stated much earlier.
All of the data that I have seen both locally and nationally shows all of the signs of the beginning of exponential growth. That is happening now. Under the current level of restrictions. Delaying will not stop that growth in cases. Instead we will reach 19th July with a significantly higher number of cases in the population, a higher R-number and sadly as a result we will have seen more deaths.
If now is not the right time to start our return to normality then when? We know now that vaccination is the route out of this. Uptake has been incredibly high. Delivery extremely effective. The battle may not have been won, but the message is clear – the vaccination protects. Of course delaying will allow that protection to be spread further, but those doses of vaccine would still have been able to be administered during late June and early July even if theatres were allowed to open.
The concern that has been widely aired is of course that come the arrival of “Freedom Day” there will be some other good reason for a delay. I do not ascribe any malign intent to this. Neither do I jest about there being a good reason. On 19th July cases will be higher. More people will be in hospital and more will have lost their lives. There may be a further variant that is not fully understood. All of these will be good and honest reasons for a further delay, yet each of them must be weighed against the value of our liberty.
I will continue to follow the rules for an additional four weeks. Not because I slavishly agree with Government policy or for fear, but because I believe in the rule of law. I would encourage everyone to continue to follow the regulations, and indeed the guidance which is in place to keep us all safe. Thames Valley Police officers have done an incredible job of delivering appropriate and proportionate enforcement, whilst as ever putting themselves in harm’s way at the height of the pandemic. My respect for the individuals involved is huge and I know that they will continue to fulfil their duty to uphold the regulations.
Does this mean I am happy about the delay? Most certainly not. I believe the decision to postpone the releasing of the final lockdown restrictions is mistaken. I fear that 19th July will not be “Freedom Day” and that we will gradually slide into a winter of further restrictions. I sincerely hope that is me who proves to be mistaken in five weeks’ time!