It’s a confusing time to be living in the United Kingdom.
In theory, I should be embracing this, the very moment I’ve been waiting months for. After a year and a half of joyless lockdowns, restrictions and, most tragically, deaths in the hundreds of thousands due to the coronavirus, the U.K. government announced it would finally lift all legal pandemic restrictions in England on July 19.
Yet, what should have been a time to celebrate with extended family, cast our masks aside and hug friends in pubs and nightclubs instead brings me an unshakable sense of dread, anxiety and bewilderment.
I’m now vaccinated with two doses, and so are my loved ones. I have no prior health concerns. I don’t have a job that requires me to interact too heavily with people face to face. Surely, I should feel safe to return to some semblance of my pre-pandemic life. And yet, the coming arrival of what the tabloid press has dubbed “Freedom Day” feels anything but freeing.
Here’s how my country has managed to get itself into a peculiarly British mess, which may serve as a warning to my American friends as the spread of the Delta variant threatens chaos there as well.
The U.K. is coming off of what has been one of the more successful inoculation programs in the world, and it has one of the least vaccine-skeptical populations on the planet.
But the decision by Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to implement stricter isolation requirements for people traveling from India, just as a new, hyper-transmissible strain of coronavirus was circulating, has been branded “a disaster” by experts, and contributed to the United Kingdom becoming a hotspot for cases of the Delta variant.
This has led to public health officials performing a strange balancing act for residents: We’re close to an inflection point where immunity from vaccines and prior infection should be enough to prevent deaths and serious illness, but it’s far from clear that that inflection point has been reached.
Under the circumstances, other nations might have opted for caution: Maybe leaving mask mandates in place and maintaining some legally binding restrictions to keep infections under control.
This was not the case for the U.K.’s Conservative Party administration, which announced on July 5 it would stick to the plan to lift all remaining restrictions in England, just as Delta cases were surging. In an open letter, thousands of scientists called the reopening a “dangerous and unethical experiment.” But Prime Minister Johnson has emphasized the old conservative chestnut that individuals should take “personal responsibility” to make “informed decisions” when it comes to tackling COVID, rather than relying on legal sanctions.
“If we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks,” Johnson said, “then we must ask ourselves, ‘When will we be able to return to normal?’”
Despite this, Johnson insists the “pandemic is far from over” and that Britons must stay vigilant. It’s hardly the first time Johnson has been accused of putting out mixed messages. He was even mocked for it on “The Great British Bake Off” TV show last year.
But how, exactly, are citizens supposed to make “informed decisions” when the messaging from those tasked with providing guidance is far from clear? It’s still not known how sick people could potentially get from Delta, and there are concerns about its increased transmissibility and the possible risk posed to fully vaccinated people of breakthrough infections.
Although infections are skyrocketing and hospitalizations and deaths are also climbing rapidly, the ratio of the latter two to the former is much lower compared to previous waves. As of Friday, the most recent seven-day rolling average for cases published by the British government stood at 32,146. The corresponding averages for hospitalizations and deaths are 591 and 32, respectively. The last time the case average was as high, back in January, the hospitalization and death figures were 3,736 and 1,265, albeit coming on the downward curve of a wave rather than upward.
This indicates that the vaccines are working, weakening the link between contraction of the disease and serious illness or death. But it certainly hasn’t severed it, and many unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people will fall through the gaps.
It’s also unclear what the implications would be for people experiencing long-COVID symptoms, and there are concerns that lifting restrictions could make Britain the perfect breeding ground for potentially dangerous and more vaccine-resistant variants. On Friday, more than a thousand scientists, including government advisers from New Zealand, Israel and Italy, warned that the British government’s actions in lifting restrictions posed a threat to the world.
To add to the sense of farce, the country’s new health secretary, Sajid Javid — a man who is said to have tipped the government toward taking a far more anti-restriction-oriented stance since taking the role last month — announced on Saturday that he was isolating after having contracted a mild case of COVID-19, despite being fully vaccinated, just two days before the "Freedom Day" he pushed for.
What has irked so many British millennials (Including me) and Gen Z-ers is the decision to open workplaces before many people in younger age groups have had their second jab. Vaccines including Pfizer and AstraZeneca have been shown to provide much better protection against the coronavirus after two doses. However, in Britain, the shots have been spaced further apart than the three weeks stated in manufacturers’ guidelines. This was initially meant to get as many first-dose jabs in arms as possible during the Alpha wave at the beginning of the year. The second dose was then scheduled much later because studies had suggested that gaps of a few weeks more actually increased vaccine efficacy.
Perplexingly, health authorities have stuck more closely to that plan than many would have liked in recent weeks. This means single-dosed younger people — who were the last to be called to get the jab — have been unable to get fully vaccinated prior to this grand reopening.
This has created a world of frustration and confusion. Just last night, a friend told me he had been unable to move up the date of his second dose, meaning he may not meet the vaccination requirements to go on a long-awaited trip to see his family.
Many of those in professions like bartending, hospitality and retail, potentially not yet fully protected by the vaccine, risk having to go to work in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces full of people who are not legally required to wear masks.
Adding to the chaos, this past week more than 500,000 people, in one day, received a “ping” from the government’s COVID-19 contact tracing app telling them to self-isolate, which caused disruption to businesses across the country. And then there’s the upset faced by families who have school-age children, with 820,000 kids self-isolating at home due to rising cases in schools, according to recent figures.
Most heartbreaking of all is the situation that 3.8 million people in England, classified as clinically vulnerable, are facing. Advocates for cancer patients, people with long-term disabilities and those with weakened immune systems feel these citizens have been left “vulnerable and abandoned” by the government, with their fates at the whims of inconsiderate strangers who refuse to mask up now that they’re no longer legally required to.
Faced with a surge in cases and concerns about increasing demands on hospital ICUs, the government has shown signs of tempering its rhetoric on the looming “Freedom Day,” but it has not indicated that it plans to bring back legal restrictions anytime soon, as the Netherlands and Israel have done amid rising cases.
It’s also worth noting that the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have set more cautious timetables for lifting restrictions. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also said that masks will remain compulsory on the capital’s public transport, although enforcement could potentially be an issue.
But it’s not doom and gloom for everyone. While I was getting my hair cut recently, my barber happily talked about how he “couldn’t wait to see the place buzzing again” and listed all the heavy metal concerts he was planning to go to in the coming months.
For others though, the chaos and confusion that has defined the pandemic have been heightened. After all, we’ve gotten used to a pattern In which cases go up, and then restrictions get put in place to bring them down again. It feels incredibly discombobulating to suddenly be careening toward throwing everything open and hoping for the best.
One anguished friend of mine implored the rest of our group chat to help her make sense of the situation: “I was with my granny yesterday, and now all my anxiety about giving her COVID has come back,” she texted us. “I don’t understand because I thought vaccinations would put an end to all that.”
Based on everything that has happened over the past few weeks, I think she’s far from alone.
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