From regulation to guidance and COVID-19 ‘Freedom Day’

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By Professor John Bryson
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham

July 2021 will be etched in the UK’s historical consciousness due to exploits with a football. Unfortunately, the memory of this event is of what might have been for the English team, but it is also a memory of great football played by world class teams.

July 2021 will also be etched in this country’s historical consciousness for what has been termed ‘Freedom Day’. In some accounts, on Monday 19 July the UK will return to some degree of normality as the government removes COVID-19 legal limits on social contact. It is important to stand back from the media and political debate to reflect back on the government’s ‘Roadmap out of lockdown’ that was published on 22 February 2021. This contains four stages. We were expected to reach the fourth stage not before 21 June. Well, the 19 July has become the new 21 June.

The roadmap text noted that “COVID-19 remains a part of our lives. We are going to have to keep living our lives differently to keep ourselves and others safe. We must carry on with ‘hands, face, and space’”. This text does not highlight the dawn of a return to life as it was in 2019. This is a text that appreciates that COVID-19 will continue to be transmitted between people who fail to follow advice on ‘hands, face, and space’. There is also a subtext here in that vaccination is only one part of the solution to living with COVID-19. Vaccination provides protection for individuals and society, but not complete protection.

The COVID-19 roadmap text highlights that all citizens must “continue to play our part” and this will contribute towards a shift in which we will all be a “bit closer to a future that is more familiar”. Note the language here, in that this is not a return to pre-COVID-19 times, but the emergence of some form of ‘post’ pandemic living.

There are four myths about ‘Freedom Day’ that can be identified in existing media and political debates. First, that July 19 is Freedom Day. This is not the case. The use of this term raises expectations that might increase COVID-19 transmission increasing morbidity and mortality. Freedom, in this context, refers to the lifting of legal restrictions, and it does not mean the end of a socially distanced economy. This is an important point, in that all the so-called Freedom Day represents is a shift from a system of regulation to one of guidance. This is a shift in which all citizens must take responsibility for minimising disease transmission. The media has an important role to play here.

Second, the COVID-19 virus will continue to adapt, and new variants will continue to emerge. In this context, the myth is that after July 19 it will perhaps be much harder to catch COVID-19 and that we can all relax our guard. To this virus, July 19 is meaningless. Thus, it is important to be wary of opportunities to both catch and transmit COVID-19. It is important to remember the “three Cs” and to continue to be wary of closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places with many people nearby and close-contact settings, for example close-range conversations.

Third, that July 19 heralds the end of the pandemic. The real danger is that too many people will assume that Freedom Day is a return to our 2019 lifestyles and COVID-19 related routines which have been developed over the last 16 months will be set aside. We should rejoice on the 19 July, but ‘Freedom Day’ does not herald the end of the pandemic and the start of the post-pandemic epoch.

Fourth, COVID-19 has reminded humanity of the threats that are related to disease transmission. The history of human civilisation is one of epidemics and pandemics. Some countries have been more exposed to epidemics in recent years, and some have perhaps forgotten about these threats. There will be other epidemics and pandemics. Now is the time not to consider returning to some type of new normal, but to develop approaches that will ensure that the next pandemic is either avoided or the impacts minimised. This requires new approaches to global cooperation and alterations in the design of buildings and cities.

It is impossible to precisely predict the impacts of Freedom Day on public health given variations in the degree of immunity across the population and in human behaviour. Nevertheless, acting responsibility should mean that we all should be able to remember July 2021 as the beginning of the end of the pandemic and not the start of another COVID wave.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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