Over the past few weeks, the UK has reaped the combined benefits of a successful covid-19 vaccination rollout, public health protection, and lockdown measures, all of which have resulted in relatively fewer recent deaths from covid-19. The government is now facing up to the final few weeks before the so-called Freedom Day on the 19 July, when all covid-19 restrictions will be lifted in England.
We have reached a policy crossroads, and in my view, the government has chosen the wrong path. It is no doubt tempting to relax social distancing, remove mandatory face masks in indoor settings, and lift restrictions on international travel, thereby boosting the struggling hospitality industry. But at this stage of the covid-19 pandemic, this could be a big mistake.
The challenge that the government faces between “living with the virus” and aiming to “suppress the virus” is that there are many competing interests at play. The government claims that easing covid-19 restrictions is necessary to boost the economy. This is true, but as many commentators have pointed out, we cannot pit the economy against public health. One also has to consider whose economic interests are likely to benefit the most. People living in poorer areas have been disproportionately affected by covid-19, with a recent report finding that adults in poorer areas are four times more likely to die from covid-19. Those who are simply seeking to generate an income to replace the income that they’ve not been able to generate since covid-19 began, will not benefit if the number of cases and deaths from covid-19 continues to increase. These businesses and individuals will only benefit if virus levels are sustained at low levels, avoiding the need for future cycles of covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns. On the other hand, there are those who have benefitted as a result of the pandemic, generating vast amounts of income as a direct result of the government’s handling of covid-19. The Good Law Project and EveryDoctor UK are mounting legal challenges over contracts that have been awarded to individuals and companies with links to ministers or officials who have benefited from lucrative contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE), and other covid-19 related services.
It is increasingly difficult to say that the government is neutral in considering their future covid-19 strategy when it has implications for the multi million pound contracts of “political friends.” We are faced with an extremely troubling scenario that economic growth is being placed above public health, and that financial interests are being given more weight than the lives of the public.
Daily cases of covid-19 are now rising in the UK, driven largely by the delta variant. Lifting covid-19 restrictions and permitting overseas holidays without quarantine measures is not a risk that we should take lightly. Without strict quarantine measures we face the real and bleak future of more covid-19 deaths related to imported variants in the coming months. International holidays are a relative luxury. Indeed millions of people in the UK have never had the financial means to experience an overseas holiday so they would more likely prefer to live a long and healthy life, rather than worry about seeking an overseas holiday. Rather than opening up restrictions, the government should accept the need to offer sustainable financial support to those businesses impacted by restrictions on international travel.
Populistic gestures such as permitting secondary school children not to wear facemasks in school, and opening up large scale sporting events, for example, the British Grand Prix or the Euro 2020 Finals, are premature—especially in the light of increasing numbers of the Delta variant. We are now at a tipping point, and it’s imperative that our government shows some moral leadership and places the lives of the most vulnerable in society at the forefront. If the government is truly driven by data and not dates, they should publicly share their data projections and modelling for covid-19 cases, hospital admissions, ventilator capacity, and mortality over the next few months. This would help to build trust about the proposed relaxation of public health protection measures on 19 July. Patience and supporting the public to follow public health protection measures are the key priority as we accelerate vaccine rollout. The 19 July is too soon for “Freedom Day.”
Gurch Randhawa is professor of Diversity in Public Health at the University of Bedfordshire.
Competing interests: GR is a member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee and a member of Public Health England/Joint Biosecurity Centre/NHS Test and Trace Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions Ethics Group.