Isabel Hardman

Are ministers prepared for ‘freedom day’?

Are ministers prepared for ‘freedom day’?
Boris Johnson (Photo: Getty)
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Is the government having a wobble over ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July? Well, for one thing you won’t hear ministers talking about ‘Freedom Day’ over the next week. Instead, they are preferring to focus on the need for people to be very cautious, given the soaring numbers of cases and hospitalisations. When he appeared on Times Radio this morning, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi talked far more about what would still be ‘expected’ of people after 19 July than about how the roadmap was working and how nice it was for life to be returning to normal. For him, this date seems to be more ‘Be very careful day’.

To that end, the government will be publishing guidance this week which is designed to tell people what is ‘expected’ of them in order to stop cases rising even more once restrictions on masks and gatherings end. That guidance wasn’t in the offing when Boris Johnson initially talked about the need for an ‘irreversible’ road map, but given the Prime Minister is adamant that unlocking cannot be reversed, this is the best the government can do. Ministers may well be relieved to see polling that shows quite how much support there still is for mandatory mask wearing and so on: their hope might be that this will translate into significant peer pressure not to use all the freedoms that come on 19 July.

But Zahawi’s caution paled into comparison with the tone struck by Public Health England’s Dr Susan Hopkins on the show this morning. She accepted that there was a ‘balance’ to be struck in choosing the unlocking date because pushing it back too late would risk coinciding with the return of English pupils to school and the start of the autumn/winter flu season. But she essentially suggested that people should ignore the guidance they’re being given and need to continue living as though they are in a form of lockdown. She was particularly out of kilter with ministers when it came to a return to the workplace, saying that while they were ‘keen’ to get workers back in offices, she’d rather they stayed at home:

‘If you are able to do your business effectively from home then I think over the next four to six weeks, with a rise in cases, we should try our best to do that. Then we should continue to look and see and have a cautious return to the office over the coming weeks once we start to see a decline in the number of cases.’

Tomorrow Boris Johnson will give a press conference on the guidance, and will almost certainly face questions over whether it is right to go ahead with unlocking on 19 July at all. But a more important question is surely how the government has any confidence that its expectations of the public will ensure that the NHS it pledged to protect won’t be overwhelmed in the next few months after all.