So “Freedom Day” has finally arrived. We have reached Boris Johnson’s final milestone on the road out of lockdown. All covid restrictions have been lifted and we are now free to cavort all night, singing and dancing, hugging and kissing whoever we like, crammed into nightclubs with thousands of others who have finally been able to cast off, and consign ‘irreversibly’ to history, the face-masks and other restrictions that infringed their right to liberty and dignity – indeed every human right you can think of – so wantonly. It may not quite compare with the storming of the Bastille, or the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, or the ending of apartheid, but it comes pretty damn close. Apart from anything else, it has the signal advantage for our honourable Prime Minister of freeing him from his oft-repeated promise to heed the scientific advice and follow the data not the dates.
On the strength of what our government appears to think is an unanswerable question, however often it is parroted – ‘If not now, when?’ – it is confidently falling back on the certainty that the British public will always behave responsibly. Obviously, no one in Government was watching the TV coverage of the European football final. Why bother when England is so manifestly superior in every respect to any other country in Europe (in spite of the England team clearly having too many children of immigrants who should have been sent back to where they came from) that it was bound to win unless the referee, or the other team, or both, cheated? Had Boris and his cabinet been watching the coverage, they might have noticed that their ‘responsible’ citizens in the stands and fan zones were doing anything but maintaining responsible social distancing. As an answer to ‘If not now, when?’, why not try ‘When everyone who is prepared to be vaccinated has been vaccinated’.
No, we can’t wait for more people to be vaccinated – the economy would suffer too badly. A covert return to Boris’s original ‘herd immunity’ strategy would be far better: keep the economy going and ‘learn to live with’ the dying of a few tens of thousands more victims of Covid, and the long-Covid disablement of tens of thousands of others. Interesting idea – but the timing could perhaps be better: Boris Johnson has timed his lifting of all restrictions to coincide almost exactly with the moment when the rapidly rising infection rate of our third wave of Covid reaches the nice round figure of 50,000 a day. The inevitable consequence of that is, as The Guardian has pointed out: ‘The latest figures released by the NHS show more than half a million people were contacted and told to self-isolate between 1 and 7 July, the highest weekly figure since the app launched.’ This has already resulted in multiple smaller businesses – pubs, hotels and shops – having to close as a result of a policy intended to enable them to open and stay open, and is threatening to close supermarkets and bring car production lines to a grinding halt. By 16th August, the date until which our government, committed as it is ‘to data not dates’, is determined to keep the current self-isolation rules in force (in spite of its ‘Freedom Day’ lifting of all restrictions), it is estimated that nine times as many, around 4.5 million, people will have been forced into self-isolation by the pinging of the NHS app with all the fallout to the economy that will entail.
Except that, perhaps, after all, it is a matter for their own or their employers’ discretion as to whether they need to self-isolate and contribute to the stalling of the economy by doing so. No lesser eminences than our Investment Minister, Gerry Grimstone, and our Business Minister, Paul Scully,(ever heard of them? No, I haven’t either) have asserted that employees and their employers could choose to ignore the instruction to self-isolate if it reached them via the NHS app, which is ‘only advisory’, rather than Test and Trace, which is legally binding (although all restrictions have been lifted). Scully confided that he knew how frustrating this was because he ‘had to self-isolate last week [him]self for over a week, and I know how incredibly mind-numbing it is as well as the impact on the economy.’ The numbing of his mind was clearly long lasting if it allowed him to continue to fit ‘over a week’ into his week. Sadly, within an hour of Scully making his statement, he was contradicted by ‘Downing Street’, England’s most talkative cul-de-sac: ‘Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus. Given the risk of having and spreading the virus, when people have been in contact with someone with Covid it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS test and trace or by the NHS Covid app.’
It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that the shadow health minister, Justin Madders, should have seized on the opportunity to take a shot at the open goal: ‘The government is making it up as they go along. Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty.’
The mere mixing of messages, and accompanying bumbling ineptitude, on the part of Johnson and his cabinet is not, however, the most serious charge on the charge sheet. That has, as a consequence of the extraordinary timing of ‘Freedom Day’, been elevated from corporate manslaughter to murder. More than 1,200 scientists from around the world have, according to an article by Adam Forrest and Jon Stone in Saturday’s Independent, written a letter to The Lancet condemning Johnson’s decision to lift all Covid restrictions on 19th July as a ‘murderous policy … of herd immunity by mass infection.’ The policy is, as far as they are concerned, ‘unscientific and unethical’ because it will allow the Delta variant to spread rapidly around the world – London is, after all, a global travel hub. The argument that Johnson’s policy is ‘murderous’ has been very cogently articulated by William Haseltine, a prominent HIV/AIDS researcher in the US: ‘I believe the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous: I think that is the word we should use, because that is what it is; it is knowledge that you are doing something that will result in thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands of people dying. It is a disastrous policy, it’s been clear that that’s been the case for some time, and to continue to espouse that policy is unconscionable.’
Everyone should be aware by now that Johnson is unsurpassed when it comes to being ‘unscientific and unethical’, but his lack of anything resembling ethical awareness is very seldom called out quite so cogently. The grieving relatives and friends of the untold thousands who will die as a result of Johnson’s maverick policy decision would do well to take their lead from Haseltine and hold him accountable for their murder. This whole scenario is so Alice in Nightmareland-ish that if Johnson were to enter a plea of insanity in response to the indictment, most people would have very little difficulty in believing it.