How ‘Freedom Day’ Unjustifiably Ignored the Vulnerable and Disabled

CW: mentions of death, grief

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and are not representative of the views of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.

It has been over two weeks since July 19th’s ‘Freedom Day’, and the removal of almost all of England’s COVID-19 restrictions has been accompanied by rife fears amongst the vulnerable and disabled. Boris Johnson’s reckless gamble with people’s lives and his choice to appease the many at the expense of the few has ultimately imprisoned, rather than freed, our vulnerable and disabled. 

In fact, Johnson’s decision to go ahead with ‘Freedom Day’ following its initial delay has been met with much criticism and judgement from a plethora of public health officials, with Peter English, former chair of the British Medical Association’s Public Health Medicine Committee, firmly deeming there to have been ‘no justification’ for the relaxation of restrictions. Similarly, a degree of fear has dominated scientific discussions around ‘Freedom Day’, with Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modelling Consortium, declaring that ‘the world has its eyes on the UK’ as it conducts what had been condemned by 1,200 international scientists as an ‘unethical experiment’ at the expense of certain individuals’ lives.

And yet despite these concerns, an acknowledgement should be made for the extent to which, in many ways, the UK is slowly starting to defy the negative scientific predictions made for the effects of ‘Freedom Day’. Cases have fallen by 40% in the last week and hospitalisations and deaths are not skyrocketing to quite the extent that some scientists initially predicted. The vaccine rollout continues to make great progress, with 46 million people (90% of the adult population) having received their first dose and 37 million (over 70% of adults) receiving both doses. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that more than nine in ten UK adults now have coronavirus antibodies, and England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam predicts that around 60,000 deaths and 22 million cases have been prevented in England due to the vaccination programme. 

Is this to say that Johnson’s inability to consider the potential dangers of ‘Freedom Day’ for the vulnerable and disabled remains justified? I would suggest not. Though such statistics are to be celebrated, those such as Prof Tim Spector have perceived them with a degree of scepticism and as ‘a bit fishy’. Young people choosing not to get tested and a rise in people getting ‘pinged’ by the NHS track and trace app are just a couple of the stipulated reasons for these trends, though uncertainty and confusion appears to currently dominate these scientific discussions.

The irony of ‘Freedom Day’ is that it did not produce the same freedoms, hope and elation for all. Rather, for the chronically ill, disabled, long COVID-19 sufferers and those struggling with mental health issues, amongst others, it was the start of a new era of imprisonment. Official government guidance encourages the Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) to still take precautions, namely meeting people outside, avoiding those who are unvaccinated and still practicing social distancing, whilst the lack of legal protections now leaves them even more vulnerable than before. Today, the damaging narrative that ‘just’ the elderly and vulnerable are at risk has never been more prominent, as now, void of protection by government, society or law, it is the most vulnerable and disabled themselves who must solely ensure that they do not catch COVID-19.

The complete disregard for the consequences ‘Freedom Day’ has, and will undoubtedly continue to have, upon the vulnerable and disabled only furthers the poor treatment these groups have been subjected to throughout the course of the pandemic. The government has continually treated disabled people as expendable, proving reluctant to prioritise them for vaccinations (even when presented with compelling evidence demonstrating their higher risk of death), alongside delaying the recommendation that children over 12 with severe neuro-disabilities, Down’s syndrome, immunosuppression and multiple learning disabilities be allowed the Pfizer vaccine. Though compulsory vaccinations in care homes are on the horizon, there has still been no mention of their implementation for supported living.

Those with learning disabilities are eight times more likely to die from COVID-19 and five times more at risk of hospitalisations. Many in wheelchairs struggle to social distance and others are unable to wear masks. Thus, it is unsurprising that research by Scope has found that over 64% of disabled people believe that unlocking restrictions on July 19th was the wrong decision, insisting that ‘Freedom Day’, rather than liberating, has encouraged them to either put their lives entirely on hold or instead play a ‘dangerous roulette’ with their health. Though The Department of Health insists that it has offered all vulnerable over-40s a double jab by July 19th, its uptake is somewhat low, with The National Coronavirus and People with Learning Disabilities Study finding that almost 40,000 learning disabled people remain unvaccinated. Even those who are vaccinated are now struggling with the new onus of personal responsibility, with an absence of comprehensive and accessible information on COVID-19 further aiding the anxiety and upset of CEV individuals who struggle with communication and decision-making.

Beyond this, we must also not forget that people are still unfortunately dying from COVID-19, almost all of whom are vulnerable or disabled. Though comparatively smaller in numbers (68 reported on July 30th), these are still deaths in and of themselves. As the government increasingly appears to almost dismiss such deaths or instead label them as statistical achievements in battling COVID-19, we must ask ourselves: have we as individuals also somewhat dismissed the significance of these lives? And why does policy no longer seem to care for the families who are still losing vulnerable loved ones every day to this virus? Fundamentally, a governmental decision to reduce these individuals to mere statistics and to disregard their deaths as ‘inevitable’ or ‘unavoidable’ is wholly unforgivable. Even worse, it sends out a clear message to the vulnerable and disabled on how they have been prioritised in value.

Johnson’s decision to prioritise politics and public image over the inherent safety of some of our country’s most at risk has left them feeling far from free. Many feel let down, ignored and outright abandoned. Ultimately, to suggest that these groups should internalise a governmentally contrived feeling of disposability and that little to nothing can be done to accommodate for them and their conditions as we move forward into the next stage of the pandemic’s handling is a governmental injustice. More must be done to ensure that the freedoms granted by so-called ‘Freedom Day’ are emancipating for all, rather than just for those of fit health.

Image courtesy of Kaspars Eglitis

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