Freedom Day shows every sign of being anything but free, argues Dragan Plavšić
It’s all very familiar. On Friday, Professor Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, told us what to expect from Freedom Day.
He said Covid hospitalisations were doubling every three weeks and could hit ‘scary numbers’.
He said we shouldn’t ‘underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast’.
He said this ‘could actually be really quite serious’.
He said Covid’s ‘got a long way to run in the UK, and it's got even further to run globally’.
And he said Covid could mutate into a ‘vaccine escape variant’ that could take the UK ‘some of the way backwards’ to the worst days of the pandemic.
But you’ve got to wonder about Whitty because he didn’t then say that the logical conclusion to be drawn from everything he’d said was to delay lifting the Covid restrictions.
Instead, he advised us to take individual care by, in effect, doing the opposite of what the government’s doing and "tak[ing] things incredibly slowly". However, Covid has to be fought socially if it’s to be fought effectively. Careful individuals won’t control it.
Some see Whitty as an English Fauci tempering Johnson’s excesses behind the scenes, but with 130,000 dead and counting, there’s precious little evidence his tempering’s done us any good. On the contrary, every time he takes to the briefing podium, he gives Johnson vital scientific cover.
Once again, we’re seeing that science is never merely science but an art ultimately determined by politics. The tragedy is it’s currently being determined by the fatally artless politics of Johnson and the libertarian right who put profit before people at every opportunity.
This gives exposure to Tory backbenchers like Miriam Cates who claim there’s no scientific consensus on masks (there is) and who say they won’t be wearing one because ‘freedom is very important’ (it is, but guess what, you’ve got to be around to exercise it).
Other Tories like Jeremy Hunt are saying that ‘the warning light on the NHS dashboard is not flashing amber, it is flashing red’ and that Johnson will have to reintroduce restrictions in autumn. But how many more lives will have been lost by then? And how many will have been struck down by long Covid?
That the new health secretary, Sajid Javid, has just caught Covid is nothing if not ironic. He won’t be free on Freedom Day because he’ll be self-isolating.
His symptoms are mild because he’s had both jabs – unlike the millions he’ll be exposing to the virus on Monday.
Following contact with Javid, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak will also be self-isolating, but only after widespread criticism of their original plan to carry on as normal in the name of piloting some new daily testing regime.
This is entirely true to form for this government – a misreading of the public mood, attempts to circumvent rules the they expect the rest of us to follow, followed by backlash, followed by U-turn.
For a bit of a change, Starmer’s said he opposes Freedom Day but he’s been so feeble about it no-one’s actually noticed. And anyway, his focus this week’s not been Covid at all, but ‘sweating blood’ to win back Labour voters by expelling the left.
Freedom Day is really Groundhog Day. We’ve been here before with science sidelined and warnings waved aside. There’s talk of Freedom Day being a ‘gamble’, but the metaphor feels grotesquely wrong given the chips the government’s gambling with are our lives.
What to do then? Clearly, individual and collective self-reliance are going to be at a premium. We’ve got to carry on taking individual precautions like wearing masks to protect ourselves and those around us, while at workplaces, likely to be key sites of transmission, we’ve got to be ready to take whatever collective action’s necessary to protect one and all.
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Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).