“Freedom day” is clearly not about freedom from the risk of illness, death and destitution. It’s a continuation of the very system of governance that created avoidable public health harms from COVID-19 and the economic crisis.
The premature ending of the public health measures that were in place to protect people from COVID-19 represents an explicit and stark choice against health. While vaccinations are helping reduce the impact of COVID-19, other basic public health measures such as contact tracing and self-isolation continue to be undermined by the lack of adequate sick pay and financial support for workers and renters.
With most financial support measures set to end in September, the harm to both lives and livelihoods from this explicit choice will mean that millions of people will suffer from preventable harm. As the recent Health Foundations inquiry into COVID-19 finds, “those younger than 65 in the poorest 10% of areas in England were almost four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those in wealthiest”. Disproportionately, it will be the disabled, the medically vulnerable, migrants, people from racialised and deprived communities, who will continue to bear the unfair impact of the pandemic and the status quo economic system.
The government’s approach has been labeled by leading public health scientists writing in the BMJ as both “unethical and unscientific”. This choice will burden already overworked healthcare workers, worsening their wellbeing. The BMA warns that the “backlog of care, in both hospitals and the community, is growing at a rapid pace”. The government’s approach is a false economy: it will lead to increased health and social care costs as more people are harmed by the impact of delayed care, long-covid and increasing mental and physical stress from economic inequities. Leading scientists wrote in the Lancet backing-up these point, saying “mass infection is not an option”, and adding that the UK’s approach risks a vaccine resistance variant emerging at a time when the vast majority of the world is still unvaccinated, and countries are struggling to find enough supplies to vaccinate health workers.
This so-called freedom day is an entrenchment of old and new inequalities. It means more restrictions for some as collective safety measures collapse, and the individualisation of what is a systemic risk to everyone from a highly contagious virus.
But people will not accept a situation that means ‘everyone is free to spread the disease and put others at risk’. This is the polar opposite of what the public thinks, with most wanting to see the pandemic brought under control, while also supporting the need for increased welfare and financial support for those who need it most.
An approach to COVID-19 grounded in health and economic justice would ensure that essential workers, those who work in close environments or in face-to-face jobs, have access to adequate sick leave, secure employment and incomes – in addition to protections on their right to refuse working in unsafe conditions. It would ensure provisions for those who live in low-quality or insecure housing, as well as public health measures that mitigate against underlying inequities. This is still a viable course of action. We support the workers, renters and other sectors of civil society who continue to demand better financial and workplace protections.