Freedom Day may not officially arrive until 21st June (more on that later) but, for me, freedom is well and truly here. Yesterday I had my final second year university exam. It’s been a strange old year to say the least. When I arrived at university back in the pre-Covid heydays of September 2019, online exams seemed like a contradiction in terms. But that is precisely what happened. Despite my experience, at using both websites and Word documents, completing very important assignments in a Word document before uploading them can, surprisingly, induce quite a bit of stress.
There are, however, only so many times one can check the exams website to make sure the correct document has definitely been uploaded. In a very incidental manner, university has finished until the end of September. This provides me with a lot of free time. Though, I must admit it, I do enjoy working, I also recognise that I should embrace these times, that will go far too quickly, where I am not officially required at a place of work five days a week. Naturally, this gives more time for films, relaxation and having time away from academic work. I realised that this new found time off was my first proper occasion away from university life since Christmas.
In that sense, 10th June was my Freedom Day. But what is freedom? That is a philosophical question toiled over and debated for centuries. No blog post of any length could ever fully define the answer to that question. Broadly though, there has been an impression that individuals know whether or not they are free. One would like to think that citizens living under totalitarian oppressive regimes were well aware how awful their government was and, even if they were too fearful to personally rebel, had the self-knowledge that they were not truly free.
We can think of freedom in terms of being negative or positive. The negative interpretation, which strongly links to classical liberalism, places much emphasis on the freedom from: government, poverty, institutions and structures that could reduce the potential autonomy citizens enjoy. By contrast, positive freedom, which evolved alongside modern interpretations of liberalism, gives more weight to the freedom to do things: love whoever one likes, enjoy opportunities, have a decent standard of living. There, the role of the government as an enabling agent is given more legitimacy and recognition.
No-one can deny that freedom has very much been a secondary, if not tertiary, concern over the last year. Despite the brief interlude between lockdowns, and greater freedoms we enjoy today, the ability to do what we like, when we like, without any interference from the government has been near non-existent. Micromanaging over the number of individuals people can meet out with outside, whether sitting on a bench is allowed and what counts as a substantial meal are all questions that little over a year ago would have seemed ludicrous for the government to be involved with.
Yet it is not just the lockdowns that have caused this reduction in freedom. As I will always say, the human costs of both Covid and lockdown have been extortionate and terrible. Highlighting one does not deny the other - this is no zero sum game. Even without state lockdowns, individuals would have chosen to stay indoors and not see family because of the very real threat that Covid poses.
Thank goodness then, for the tremendous vaccine rollout in the UK. It cannot be stated how badly the rollout could have gone (much like other parts of the response). Insufficient supplies, individuals not contacted, the counterfactual situation could have so easily taken place and been utterly dire. If anyone deserves a damehood, it is Kate Bingham, for taking on this voluntary role of procuring the vaccines and ensuring the delivery was so smooth. Given the effectiveness of all the vaccines in reducing severe infection and death, more freedoms have gradually be allowed.
The final big unlocking is then on the horizon. This would seek to remove all limits on social distancing, which would, presumably, allow Glastonbury style concerts, theatres and cinemas at full capacity, nightclub dance floors in major use. That would be quite the turnaround and a clear sign that a post-Covid world, at least domestically, was here.
A statement of declaration: I don’t go to nightclubs or large Glastonbury style concerts. Admittedly, on the occasions where I’ve recently been able to visit the theatre and cinema, I’ve quite enjoyed the extra leg space from social distancing. However, even though I don’t partake in the remaining activities currently restricted, I want others to be able to enjoy those opportunities. The success of the vaccine rollout, with all vulnerable groups double jabbed, should provide individuals with the security that a further relaxing of restrictions should not lead to severe illness or hospitalisation.
Of course, cases are currently rising, no thanks to the government’s failure to put India on the ‘red list’ quickly enough in order to maintain face with the ghastly Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But an increase in cases would always be the case as restrictions are eased. A lockdown is only a temporary stopgap in increasing cases by separating people apart. We don’t need to worry; thanks to the vaccine, an increase in hospitalisations has not yet been seen in the same manner.
Many questions remain as to how long the two doses of the vaccine continue to provide effective protection against severely suffering from Covid-19. Talk of booster jabs every winter, like for the flu, has been a brief part of the public discussion but not properly developed. As such, enough vaccinations should be kept domestically to ensure vulnerable groups can receive those booster doses if required. Otherwise, I think the focus should be on excess vaccinations being distributed through the World Health Organisation Covax scheme across the world. There are so many vulnerable adults yet to be vaccinated who desperately require the jabs.
Much of the public discourse surrounding the return of freedom has been linked to the success of vaccinations. It does however, make me wonder how our attitude towards freedom and risk would alter if an effective vaccine against Covid-19 hadn’t been discovered until, say, late 2022. What would we have done? The situation would be utterly disastrous. Vulnerable individuals would enjoy no protection whatsoever. The UK may have repeatedly headed in and out of lockdowns depending on the changing rate of cases. Catastrophic would not even begin to describe such a horror show.
That is why it is vital to understand that freedom will be achieved not only by the vaccines, but around our entire attitude towards society. Questions remain, for example, over whether Freedom Day will mean the end of mandatory mask wearing and social distancing. Personally, I think mask wearing should become voluntary, not least because many people will no doubt choose to carry on wearing a mask. While any potential rise on hospitalisations is of course horrific, data is needed on whether patients are specifically being treated for Covid or another cause. Alongside this, the Nightingale hospitals should remain available for this winter if necessary.
The removal of restrictions will then need both a changing approach to how we view other humans and risk. On other humans, I must admit that, at the cinema and theatre, I still viewed humans as potential vectors of infection rather than fellow individuals enjoying culture. As the virus recedes in severity, we must aim to view other humans with confidence alongside the widespread compassion that many were willing to offer by sacrificing their rights for the protection of others.
Unfortunately, there could always be a reason given to justify further restrictions. A new variant, rising cases, an increase in hospitalisations. What is instead needed is both a recognition of the risks that daily life provides and the way in which Covid vaccines have rapidly reduced the risk of severe infections. A society is made up of its people and institutions, both formal and informal. ‘Freedom Day’ on June 21st, if it is to mean anything, should allow the return of it all.
Noah enjoys writing a blog and drinking tea