Artillery Row

Freedom Day remembered

How the doomsayers got it wrong

It is two years to the day since the government lifted all COVID-19 restrictions. Not everybody was pleased.

In a letter to the Lancet, a group of self-proclaimed experts condemned “Freedom Day” (as it was dubbed by the press) as “unethical and illogical”. The signatories, which included the perennial Zero Covid advocates Stephen Reichter, Susan Mitchie, Martin McKee and Gabriel Scally, wrote: “We believe the government is embarking on a dangerous and unethical experiment”. In the British Medical Journal, many of the same academics called the lifting of restrictions “a terrible mistake” and described the new focus on personal responsibility as “an abdication of the government’s fundamental duty to protect public health”.

“I can’t think of any realistic good scenario to come out of this strategy,” said Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester. “I think it’s really a degree of how bad it’s going to be.” “Allowing infections to run amok in the country is a dangerous mistake”, said Stephen Griffin of Leeds University, while his Independent Sage colleague Christina Pagel said: “It feels really surreal (and not in a good way) to be living in a country that is actively trying to infect young adults and children with Covid.” Robert West, a nicotine addiction expert married to Susan Mitchie, said that telling people to behave responsibly was “like putting someone out on the road without having taught them to drive.”

In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee called it “calamitous health policy misjudgment.” In the same newspaper, Dr Rachel Clarke said that she was “disgusted” by “the government’s decision to pour petrol on Covid numbers.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer called it “a reckless free for all”

Labour leader Keir Starmer called it “a reckless free for all” and said that the government “urgently needs to change course [and] drop plans to lift all restrictions”. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said Boris Johnson had “got it wrong” with his “gamble” and called for mask-wearing to remain mandatory. A report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change predicted that the number of people forced to isolate could soon hit ten million and proposed a hierarchical three-tier system for the unjabbed, single-jabbed and double-jabbed, with the latter no longer forced to self-isolate.

The rest of Europe, bar Sweden, continued to labour under a range of restrictions and looked on in horror at Britain’s experiment with normality. In Australia, the former secretary health department Stephen Duckett said: “There is no reputable public health adviser of any kind who would recommend opening up at a time when the virus is spreading rapidly.” In the Financial Times, a columnist reported that “other countries look upon the UK with bemusement”. “I don’t need untapped freedom, festivals and frenzy”, she added. “I just want a foreign holiday.” Another FT columnist quipped that Freedom Day should really be called “Surrender Day”, adding that “England waves a white flag to the virus and embarks on a strategy of mass infection.” Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme called it “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”. Irish Times readers living in England told the newspaper that the lifting of restrictions was “ludicrous” and “scary”. “It is extraordinarily hard to live under Boris Johnson’s government,” wrote one woman who intended to use “stronger masks” from now on, “their lack of care for others is overwhelming.”

Many critics argued that what appeared to be freedom was anything but. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who helped form Independent Sage, tweeted: “It’s not ‘Freedom Day’. It’s #UnFreedomDay. It’s the triumph of unreason & untruth & unscience.” On the academic website The Conversation, a lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University argued that the whole idea of “Freedom Day’ was propaganda. “Concepts like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ have been invoked by propagandists since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and subsequent Enlightenment period”, he sagely observed. 

On his LBC show, James O’Brien nearly had an aneurysm as he tried to work out the difference between advice and compulsion:

Why are you calling it Freedom Day if you’re telling me I can still catch it, I can still pass it on even if, as I am, I’m fully vaccinated? And you’re telling me I should still protect myself and others by following the advice that you’ve just freed me from having to follow? Are you still with me at the back?  Are you free or are you not free? Are you free to follow? Are you free to not follow? What?!

With no sign of Boris Johnson backing down, the projections of epidemiological modellers would finally be put to the test. On the Today programme, Prof John Edmonds from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine predicted that there would be a “higher level of incidence for a protracted period right through the summer and probably through much of the autumn”. His fellow modeller Neil Ferguson said that it was “almost inevitable” that the number of daily cases, then running at 50,000, would hit 100,000 after all restrictions were lifted. “The real question is do we get to double that — or even higher,” he said. With hospital admissions for COVID-19 running at 4,000 a day, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said “we are heading for about 10,000 Covid hospital patients by the end of August”. 

None of this happened, of course. As any armchair epidemiologist who had seen the schedule of the European football championships could have predicted, the number of new infections had peaked more than a week earlier. In England that summer, the number of daily recorded cases remained below 60,000 and soon fell to less than half of that. The number of daily Covid-related hospital admissions barely exceeded 5,000, of which a growing number were not primarily due to Covid.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak spent the day self-isolating after coming into contact with health secretary Sajid Javid who had come down with the virus two days earlier. In Trafalgar Square, anti-lockdown campaigners held an eccentric protest against lockdowns. 

The people who been so hysterically and completely wrong dusted themselves down and prepared to do it all again when the Omicron variant emerged in the winter. None of them ever apologised.

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