July 19, 2021

With freedom comes responsibility…

Boris has been dangling a tantalising carrot in front of us for months – if you behave yourselves and follow the rules, then one day, life will return to ‘normal’.  And now, people of England, that day is finally here.  Today is our ‘Freedom Day’ as it’s been dubbed – the day that all government-imposed Coronavirus lockdown curbs in England are lifted.

So today, we can finally stop worrying about SARS-CoV-2, that spiky-shaped virus that has tragically claimed the lives of so many and disrupted the lives of all of us for over a year and a half. We can finally cast our face masks aside, flock back to the theatres, stand nice and close to people in shops and on public transport and organise huge parties indoors… Right?

Does that sound a little bit scary to you? Probably.  If it does, you are not alone.  A recent opinion poll by Ipsos Mori revealed that 40 per cent of us intend to continue wearing masks in public indefinitely.  After all of these months of dutifully following the guidelines and the rules, the thought of venturing into a crowded public space again with no protection is frightening for many people. Are we right to be concerned?  Or have we just become ‘institutionalised’? A Sunday Times columnist recently wrote on the topic; “a certain derangement has taken hold of many of our citizens — a kind of infantile craving to be regulated, told what to do, suppressed.”

But on the flip side, can we really ignore the ever-growing volume of concern coming from the medical profession and the scientists who believe that the government’s ending of all restrictions is both negligent and dangerous. A group of UK scientists recently held an emergency summit outlining concerns about ‘freedom day’ and laid these out in a letter to the medical journal The Lancet. The editor-in-chief of the journal, Richard Horton, says, “The specific concern is that there is a considerable escape of the delta variant from immunity derived from past infections and even from vaccinations,” and he and many others from the medical community, advise continued mask use and physical distancing, even among those who have been vaccinated.

So who is right? It’s hard to say at this point what the next few months will look like and what impact the lifting of restrictions will have on hospital admissions and serious disease. Yes, just over 51% of us have now received two doses of the vaccine and nearly 68% have received one dose, but if the virus continues to mutate every three months as it has been doing, then scientists believe it will continue to become more transmissible and more able to evade vaccines, unless we prevent transmission.

Our knowledge of how COVID-19 is transmitted has greatly increased since those worrying early days of the pandemic in 2020.  We now know that fomite spread (the spread of the virus through contact with surfaces/inanimate objects) is negligible. The virus is airborne and it is the spread of the disease through aerosols (tiny contagious particles, exhaled by an infected person) that scientists now recognise as the key factor at play in transmission.  The problem with aerosols is that they remain suspended in the air indoors for hours and the only way to get rid of them is to ensure the room is well ventilated (either naturally with fresh air, or via artificial means if it isn’t possible to open a window).

It seems logical then, in the absence of ventilation, where we have no choice but to share an enclosed space with other people, that mask-wearing is probably advisable, regardless of whether this is no longer a legally enforceable requirement.  I for one intend to continue wearing a mask in crowded places, if not just to protect myself, but also to protect others around me.

I think the key thing about freedom day is that it is more important now than ever to respect each other and remain kind and calm. Everyone is going to have different thoughts on mask wearing and some people are more vulnerable or looking after loved ones that are vulnerable and therefore more wary of catching the disease than others. Others we encounter may have lost a loved one or become seriously ill themselves from contracting the virus. The point is that we don’t know what is going on in the lives of the strangers we may encounter at a shop or on the bus and if our opinion differs from theirs, we must respect that.

I am excited about going back to the Ketchum London office and seeing my colleagues and friends IRL again, as opposed to on my computer screen. But I will do so responsibly and with kindness and caution, seeing this as another step towards freedom, as opposed to an all-out abandonment of the guidelines that are in place to keep us safe as we begin to emerge from this pandemic.

Written by Victoria Winstanley, Director, Ketchum London Health