The ill-judged gamble of the government’s current pandemic policy will create losers as well as winners. Anyone lucky enough to escape infection or recover from illness quickly, while benefiting from looser restrictions, could be counted in the latter category. In the former group will be an unknown number of people killed or made seriously ill by Covid, with doctors warning of up to 2,000 hospitalisations a day; and also those bereaved or otherwise adversely affected by the decision to throw caution to the wind next Monday.
The privileged are far likelier than the average person to find themselves insulated from the new risks that step 4 brings. The end of home working, the abandonment of compulsory masks, the discretion afforded to employers, the lack of rules regarding ventilation – all these factors will place those whose lives are already more precarious in a great deal more danger than those whose wealth, health and status protect them.
It is not yet clear to what extent the current course has been set by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, or colleagues in the Treasury. But with warnings from scientists of up to 2m infections in the coming weeks, unknown risks from long Covid, and the possibility that hospitalisations and deaths could exceed spring’s second wave, the government’s pandemic policy has entered a new and alarming stage.
There are many reasons to regret ministers picking this course over a more patient approach that would have sought to vaccinate a higher proportion of the population before relaxing the rules. But high on any list of objections must be the situation it creates for the population of 3.7 million clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people in England known as shielders (there are different measures and timetables in place in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon has said that mask-wearing will continue).
Shielders are far from the only people troubled by the government’s embrace of an “at your own risk” message, as polling at the weekend showed. But the language of personal responsibility that permeates the latest guidance is particularly jarring when applied to those who know that their odds of surviving Covid are lower than others. To recommend that CEV people should consider travelling outside of peak hours or shop at quieter times of day, while offering no additional support, is a dereliction of duty.
The government’s role is, first, to make the environment as safe as possible for people and, second, to enable them to mitigate the risks they face. Shielding people should be compensated for the loss of furlough payments from September where necessary. Employers should be compelled to agree to adjusted working arrangements; travel grants provided through the Access to Work scheme are unlikely to be sufficient. In any case, they don’t address difficulties associated with anything apart from employment.
Last year Liz Truss said that the government’s approach to equalities would emphasise practicality. Days away from a “freedom day” that will be no such thing for many, such pledges ring hollow. Charity bosses fear that the pandemic is turning back the clock on disability rights, while millions of people have effectively been told to either take their chances or stay at home indefinitely.