It was billed as ‘freedom day’. Yet few people, it seems, either want to enjoy their new-found freedom or are able to enjoy it. The Prime Minister won’t be going clubbing; he is one of several hundred thousand people – it was 336,000 in the week to 7 July – who have been ordered to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace in the past few days. These are in addition to the half a million people ‘pinged’ by the NHS contract tracing app who have been asked to self-isolate, although in their case it is not a legal requirement.
For these people, it is no freedom day – it is a return to the darkest hour of lockdown. In fact, it is worse than that. At least during full lockdown we were all allowed to go out to the shops, or for exercise. The unprecedented numbers being caught by Test and Trace do not have that freedom – they must stay at the address where they are isolating 24 hours a day.
Many tens of thousands of people who thought that the government had given the green light for foreign holidays this year have been left disappointed. From today, those travelling to amber list countries (France excepted) can escape the need to self-isolate for ten days on their return, yet still they will need to pay for numerous tests and to get tested within 72 hours of their return – easy enough if you are on a package tour with a company which offers a full testing package, but a pain in the neck for independent travellers.
Moreover, the exemption only applies for those who have been vaccinated by the NHS. If you are a Briton living abroad who has been vaccinated by another healthcare system you will still have to isolate for ten days – even if you received the Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Moderna vaccines: exactly those offered by the NHS.
A few weeks ago, the government was lambasting Chancellor Merkel and President Macron for having the cheek to banish UK visitors. But the blunt truth is that Boris Johnson’s government has been at least as unreasonable when dealing with people wanting to travel to Britain from overseas.
How could it have gone so wrong? How could a day which was supposed to signal the return to normality have become such a depressing spectacle? The government’s advisers had always warned of an exit wave accompanying the reopening of society. It also looked reasonable to expect that the exit wave would not be accompanied by a wave of hospitalisations and deaths on anything like the same scale as previous waves – thanks to vaccines taking the sting out of the disease.
What was predicted when the Prime Minister announced his roadmap in February has, in other words, happened. Yet the government has lost its nerve nonetheless. It continues to operate a Test and Trace system which has never worked well, and which is completely unsuited to controlling a disease which has become endemic. Moreover, it continues to impose a border policy which would only make sense if it were, like Australia, pursuing a zero Covid policy at home.
The one thing that ‘freedom day’ has inadvertently done is to bring the constituent nations of the United Kingdom a little closer together. Rather than blasting Westminster as she might once have done, Nicola Sturgeon has chosen today for her own brand of ‘freedom day’, putting the whole of Scotland into ‘level zero’. As in England, though, it doesn’t even remotely represent what most of us would interpret as freedom. Under level zero rules, a maximum of eight people from four households can meet indoors and a maximum of 15 people from 15 households can meet outdoors. If that is level zero, is there even any provision for life in Scotland to return to normal? Across the UK, we have been fooled into thinking we have been given back our freedom – when governments have little intention of doing this in the foreseeable future.