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Monday, July 19, 2021, will not be the long-awaited Freedom Day in England, just an unlocking for larger gatherings and venues, including theatres, nightclubs and strip clubs.

Mask wearing will still be ‘expected’.

In his coronavirus briefing on Monday, July 12, Prime Minister Boris Johnson no longer used the words ‘terminus’ or ‘irreversible’. In fact, he warned about the winter months ahead.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid had announced the very same in his statement to the Commons earlier that afternoon.

At this point, I doubt that we will see any semblance of pre-coronavirus normality until next year. We might even have to have coronavirus passports. Here is the minister in charge of the vaccination programme, Nadhim Zahawi:

Incidentally, French president Emmanuel Macron announced his plans for such passports on Monday for France. He also suggested that vaccinations could be made mandatory if there is not enough take up.

The Telegraph summarised the position in England (emphases mine):

People will be expected to continue wearing masks in indoor spaces, a stricture that will no doubt remain a requirement of entry for shops and hospitality venues as well as being mandated on public transport. Companies eager for their staff to return to the office have been left in an impossible position by ambiguous guidance about working from home. Employees are not being told to stay away but nor are they expected to go to work.

Since Mr Johnson previously said it was “now or never” to end these restrictions, the inescapable conclusion is that it is to be never. If they are to be requirements now, in the middle of summer, how will they not be in the autumn and winter when the number of Covid and flu cases will rise? Some scientists, indeed, have argued that distancing and face coverings should be made permanent.

In the Commons, the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, confirmed the new tone, saying that next Monday would not be a terminus after all but another step on the road back to normality, though with no indication of when that might be.

If there are good public health reasons for this circumspection then let ministers say so and produce the evidence to justify it. If, however, the four tests set for a full reopening have been met – as Mr Javid told MPs they had been – then let it happen. Worryingly, however, the pledge of an “irreversible” course out of lockdown is no longer being heard.

It is, of course, to be welcomed that Stage 4 of the road map will be implemented next Monday. But for as long as ministerial pronouncements seeking to influence how we should behave stay in place, “Freedom Day” will remain some way off.

The Telegraph‘s Sherelle Jacobs wrote an excellent editorial on the subject: ‘Boris Johnson has lost his nerve and condemned us to Covid no-man’s land’.

She points out that, despite the stellar vaccine rollout, the Government’s response to the virus is essentially the same as it was early in 2020:

I do not envy the Prime Minister. He is having to make decisions in the face of violent resistance from scientists who have strayed far beyond their proper roles as apolitical advisers. It is, however, astonishing that 16 months and 45 million vaccinations later, our basic approach to Covid is still no more sophisticated than it was in March 2020.

She sees the NHS as the tail wagging the British dog, which, by the way, is also true in the devolved nations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland):

No 10’s priority appears to remain to “protect the NHS” at all costs. Restrictions are still deemed to be a vital tool to prevent ICUs becoming overwhelmed. Far from Britain breaking free, one can only conclude that our liberties will be tethered to ICU capacity indefinitely, with the Government loosening and tightening the reins as Covid fluctuates with the seasons.

The Government may think that it has public opinion on its side. Recent polling suggests that a sizeable proportion of the population would be happy for some restrictions to remain forever, even once the threat of Covid has faded …

The only answer is reforming the NHS:

There is one obvious way out of this. If the NHS is so precious that it is in danger of being overwhelmed even after one of the most comprehensive vaccination programmes in history, then the priority now must be to reform the service to make it fit for purpose. Germany, for instance, with its insurance-based model, has more than four times as many critical care beds per capita as Britain.

The NHS has become the new secular national religion in Britain.

Applauding it last year over so many Thursday nights at 8 o’clock has put it on a pedestal it might not wholly deserve:

The NHS has become Britain’s all-consuming project, the millstone around its neck and the cloying source of confected national pride. Its hold over the country is so powerful that even a so-called libertarian Conservative PM decided this week to risk sacrificing our ordinary freedoms rather than dare to reform it.

She adds an interesting fact about NHS financing in 1948, when it was founded:

As noble as the idea behind the NHS might have been, it is founded on delusions about Britain’s finances. (Indeed Westminster initially partly bankrolled it with foreign money, splitting 1940s Marshall aid between its domestic healthcare dreams and ailing colonial dominions).

We cannot go on like this forever, even though some would like to do so:

the downsides of lockdowns are becoming too enormous to ignore. Their effectiveness is limited in free Western countries plagued by widespread low-level non-compliance and inadequate infection control in care homes and hospitals. Contrastingly, the damage lockdowns cause is limitless – from decimating mental health to destroying children’s education. It is extraordinary that, even now, Johnson only pays lip service to this inescapable truth.

The biggest problem for the foreseeable future will be masks, especially as the Government says they are ‘expected’ in crowded, enclosed spaces. What does that really mean?

Another Telegraph article, by The Spectator‘s Anglo-American Kate Andrews, offers a suggestion to make things clearer:

Boris Johnson’s message last night was that he ‘expects and recommends’ that people continue to wear masks in ‘crowded’ and ‘enclosed’ spaces, or where you come into contact with strangers: a vague, yet seemingly large request. The message could be far more simple: be aware of your surroundings and make an informed decision. This would be a real breakaway from our Covid lifestyles, and a return to the notion of personal responsibility.

The continuation of masks and compliance in this regard could be interpreted in a sinister way:

Perhaps the mask debate playing out now is the one we should have had in the first place. After the Government’s most senior medical and scientific advisers spent months last spring telling the public not to buy or wear masks, the rule changed to mandate them on public transport, punishable by fines. Did we need to criminalise people for not wearing a mask, or might guidance have done the trick? But even now, the push for guidance often reveals itself as a push to keep emergency laws — not to be clearer with the public, but to be harsher.

There has been consensus throughout the pandemic that the British public have been wonderful: thoughtful and willing to uphold their social contract to strangers, to protect the lives of the vulnerable and elderly. Now, as their freedoms are set to be returned, that consensus is breaking. It seems when some were praising the public, they were really praising the rules that hovered over them.

Perhaps so. It is a sobering thought.

In any event, July 19 will not be Freedom Day by any stretch of the imagination. It will certainly not affect me personally, especially if I am still expected to wear a face covering.

I had been looking forward to going out for a long, languorous, maskless lunch in London next month. That will have to wait, probably until 2022.

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