By Oliver Gibson –
‘Freedom Day’ has finally been and gone, after some delay.
It was initially planned by the Government that all Coronavirus restrictions would be lifted on 21 June. Gradual steps, such as the return of pupils to school, took place in the run-up to June, introducing some normalcy in such abnormal times.
It eventually transpired that ‘Freedom Day’ was moved back a month, sparking fierce debates between those who wished for a return to normal life and others who advocated for far-reaching restrictions remaining in place for the foreseeable future.
So, exactly how ‘free’ are we as of July 2021? And how long can we expect our newly recovered liberties to last?
What is the extent to our recovered liberties and where do they apply?
England is now ‘free’ in the sense that the third lockdown is over. However, some restrictions, such as self-isolation after coming into contact with a Covid-positive person, will remain in place until 16 August. Other restrictions will come into force later on in the year, as will be discussed below.
The governments of the three other nations of the United Kingdom, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have opted for different approaches – due to differences in community transmission of the Coronavirus and for other more political reasons.
The Scottish Government, for example, eased some restrictions on 19 July as well – moving the constituent country in its entirety to ‘level zero.’ It is important to note that ‘level zero’ is not analogous to a state of freedom – instead, some restrictions remain in place for ‘some time.’
For example, in Scotland, pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues are still bound to a midnight curfew and the number of people allowed to gather in those venues is limited by law. Furthermore, social distancing and compulsory mask-wearing remains in force in Scotland and will be part of life in that country for some time.
People in England, on the other hand, are no longer limited by law as to who they can meet or where they choose to spend their time. They are also no longer compelled by law to wear a mask or to socially-distance, though the Government is advising people to continue. Strangely, some Government figures have said that English people are ‘expected’ to continue wearing masks (though they themselves removed the legal requirement for their use).
The Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, on the other hand, acknowledged that members of the general public will ‘come to different conclusions’ on mask-wearing and other matters of public health advice.
Hospitality and vaccine passports
In England, all hospitality venues are allowed to open their doors once again and are not subjected to curfews of any kind. This meant that clubs across England were able to welcome customers for the first time since before the Second Lockdown in November.
This boost to hospitality venues in England is juxtaposed with news that vaccine passports will be legally required for entry into ‘nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather.’ Some of the ramifications of vaccine passports were discussed in an article from March.
Government ministers had actually ruled out vaccine passports in January, well before the successes of the vaccine program were made apparent. In an interview from earlier this year, Michael Gove flatly denied that vaccine passports would ever be introduced twice to his interviewer. Nadhim Zahawi, minister for vaccine rollout in the UK, also ruled out vaccine passports for the domestic economy earlier this year:
Good to hear. Again. Can we hold you to this? https://t.co/S3Z9JdFoHj
— Claire Fox (@Fox_Claire) January 12, 2021
David Davis MP, a prominent figure on the Conservative backbenches, described this proposal as being ‘totally wrong,’ and went on to say that ‘it is difficult to see how the Government has properly tested the science or practicality’ behind vaccine passports. Davis has previously sought to limit the extent to which the public is bound by coronavirus restrictions, with his efforts leading the Government to amend the Coronavirus Act (2020). That Act now needs Parliamentary approval every six months, otherwise it would automatically expire.
The Bruges Group, a prominent political and economic think tank with members from the Conservative and Labour parties, pointed out that ‘nightclubs are the thin end of the wedge’ and that ‘there’s nothing to stop them being implemented in pubs and restaurants’ on Twitter.
Others seem convinced that talk of vaccine certification is merely being used as a ploy to convince more people aged 18 and above to get the jab. 35% of 18-30 year olds remain unvaccinated, however it has been proven time and again that Covid-19 has a much lesser impact on young people when compared to people in older age brackets.
People in that age bracket are now able to get their second Covid jab in Kirklees, so the effect of that ploy (if indeed it is one) will be able to be seen in the coming months.
How are major events affected?
While there is no legal limit on the number of people who can gather, as was of course the case before the pandemic, major events are still at the mercy of the test-and-trace system.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, had to cancel his production on Cinderella on the West End after his cast and crew were forced to go into self-isolation. One member of the cast, who was due to have a cameo role in the show, tested positive for Covid-19 while all other members of the cast tested negative. As this case shows, just one person can bring an entire stage production down, threatening jobs in an industry that has suffered so much in the last year. Only time will tell if a pilot scheme can be drawn-up for the cast and crew of that play.
Facetiousness aside, it is logical to assume that once the Coronavirus Act (2020) is automatically repealed, if indeed that actually happens in September, the creative arts could begin to rebuild and make up for some of the damage inflicted on that industry during the pandemic.
How are universities affected?
Coronavirus restrictions completely changed the shape of the University scene in the UK. Gone were the days of student interaction as lectures remained strictly online only, ‘hybrid’ schemes were adopted for seminars (with no seminars being in-person after November 2020 in the case of ‘non-practical subjects) and students were, at times, told not to step so much as a foot on their campuses.
Manchester offered the very worst image of all in terms of the ‘student experience’ this year – with tenants being forced to quarantine in their housing blocks as early as the first weeks of the first term, fences being erected on-campus and student riots breaking out in response to the harsh, tone-deaf measures that were forced onto students.
To add insult to injury, students at the University of Manchester and other Russel Group Universities have now been told that they will not be able to attend a single lecture in-person and that they will not receive a penny in compensation for this.
One can only hope that lectures go ahead in-person at the University of Huddersfield next year, as the Vice Chancellor has said they will. It has been promised that students will receive as much in-person teaching as possible, but the scope for subjective language to leave different people unimpressed knows few bounds.
All restrictions on in-person teaching at universities have now been removed by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson. Williamson also asked universities to avoid using Covid as a reason to deliver teaching to their students online next year, though this is by no means a binding statement.
Many university students have felt ignored by Government spokespeople and university leaders alike in the past year and a half and it is hard to imagine how thin assurances will do anything to remedy that problem.
What about schools and colleges?
Schools and colleges will be able to return to normal next year. Gavin Williamson confirmed that the school bubble system, which prevented 640,000 school pupils from attending their last week of school before the summer holidays, will be lifted next year.
The deputy general secretary of the school leaders’ union, Nick Brook, said that those figures made for ‘grim reading’ and demonstrated the ‘huge impact’ that Covid has had on schools and on children’s education in the UK.
There had been cases of schoolchildren, spurred on by a trend on TikTok, fooling Covid-19 tests by using lemon juice on the testing swabs, causing entire classes to go into self-isolation – which then disrupted the work lives of the parents of those children.
Of the 561,000 schoolchildren who were self-isolating on 1 July, 28,000 tested positive for the Coronavirus. These figures show that, around that time, every pupil who tested positive caused 20 to have to go into self-isolation.
Schools and colleges, which were able to deliver in-person teaching from September to December and then from March until July, will be able to continue to teach their pupils and students next year as well.
The time that was missed by millions of pupils and students from March 2020 up until this point, as well as the general disruptions along the way, are bound to have had an impact on their performance in future assessments and examinations. While there was talk of extending school days (which could only end up hindering pupils) and extending the term well into the summer holiday to make up for lost time, it seems as though parents are yet to be shown a clear, long-term plan by the Government that would help restore pupils back to the position that they were in before the pandemic.
One area where restrictions will continue in some form can be found in the case of international travel. For example, the Government’s ‘traffic light’ system remains in place and will continue to dictate travel arrangements for some time.
Very few countries are present on the green list at the moment, reflecting the state of the pandemic in other countries. Travellers to England from these countries need to take two Covid tests, one before and one after arrival in the country. The full list can be found on the government website here.
Many more countries can be found on the amber list. A full list of these countries and the rules which apply to travellers to and from them can be found here.
And, finally, come the red list countries. These are countries which should not be travelled to or from. Again, a full list of those countries and the rules which apply to them can be found here:
Of course, international travel will continue to be impacted by the actions of over countries’ governments just as much as our own. For example, the French Government decided to impose stricter rules for unvaccinated Brits this week. Those rules also apply to travellers from five other countries.
It is plainly obvious that we are freer now than we were last week. For example, all hospitality venues have opened and people in England will no longer face prosecution or police action for meeting a certain number of people in or outdoors.
However, some of our pre-pandemic liberties have not been returned, this can easily be seen in the case of international travel, and the freedoms that have been reintroduced could just as easily be taken away at any time.
Furthermore, restrictions that are currently not in place, such as vaccine certification requirements, are scheduled to be introduced later this autumn.
We can only be sure that we are free once again when the Coronavirus Act (2020) has been repealed. Parliament will decide whether or not to extend the lifespan of that Act in September. It seems unlikely that Keir Starmer would rally MPs against its extension given that the Labour frontbench has been so vocally against the final easing of lockdown measures.
Instead, the greatest challenge seems like it will be posed by the Coronavirus Recovery Group (CRG), spearheaded by two prominent Conservative MPs, Mark Harper and Steve Baker.
Should the Act be extended once again, it is difficult to say whether we will see a definite end to Coronavirus restrictions, at least in the short term.